A Study of ‘Dragon Mage’ by M. L. Spencer

I’ve decided to dip my toes into the field of indie books, and this is one of my initial wanderings into that field of daisies.

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing.

I listened to the audiobook, so I don’t know how to spell all the names.

And finally, here is a 3minute video on why you should read this book, if you don’t want spoilers.


BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.

I am not a giant fan of classic Hero’s Journey stories. I’ve read a ton of them before, so I need to be intrigued by something unique for me to pay attention. This book’s conceit of having an aspie/autistic protagonist as the Hero was a unique enough conceit for me to read this.


WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?

  • Fans of classic fantasy, of the Hero’s Journey/Chosen One variety
  • YA, with Adult crossover
  • People who want to read an introvert protagonist.
    • Were you the weird kid in school, with few/no friends? Check this out.
  • People with Aspergers/Autism, who want to read about a protagonist who stims, has social problems, is bullied… you get the idea.
  • People who want to read about a very empathize able protagonist. Aram is a cinnamon bun of a protagonist.
  • Similar books are:
    • ‘Eragon’ by Paolini, (In terms of a Hero’s Journey about riding dragons)
    • ‘Riyria’ by Sullivan and Shannara by Brooks (In terms of a classic Hero’s Journey with old fashioned-ish writing style)
    • And a tiny bit of ‘Harry Potter’ by Rowling (In terms of having a bit of a Found Family/School Friends vibe)

READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR

I had two main emotional responses. Intense emotional investment in the protagonist… and a bit of boredom.

I was majorly pleased while reading about this protagonist. Aram began the novel a painfully introverted, friendless, bullied protagonist. Over the course of the novel he remained introverted, but he gained friends AND inner and outer strength. He even gains coping strategies for his autism-related problems, like stimming and exposure therapy.

In the beginning of the novel, Aram’s autistic traits made him a weird, outcast boy. But at the end, his autistic traits were what allowed him to defeat the Evil Overlord. Aram is a good protagonist, because the author leaned into what made him unique. He’s introverted, but he doesn’t become extroverted by the end of the novel. I loved this, because Aram’s introversion is not a character flaw which needs to be overcome. Too many authors/movies think that an introversion is a character flaw, and needs a character arc to overcome their introversion. As an introvert myself, let me say introversion isn’t a character flaw; it’s a personality type. Seeing a heroic introvert was great.

But I also got bored. This book is almost 1000 pages long. Reading this, it felt like a 700 page novel, with a 300 novel tacked on to the end of it. When I got to the end of the 700 page novel, I was like ‘This book is great! This climax is fantastic! …Wait, it’s not over?’

The next 300 pages were fun to read, but by that point I wanted to move on.

When grading my emotional response, bare in mind I am in this book’s target audience. As a result, that will increase my grade of this novel. If you are similar to me, you might enjoy it as well. If you are not in the target audience, you might enjoy it less.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (4.5 out of 5 Stars)

(5 Stars= Perfect, 4=Great, 3=Good/Average, 2=Fun but Flawed, 1=Not Recommended)


CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

This book’s concept is ‘An almost-friendless introvert is pursued by a nefarious sorcerer who wants to torture him for magic. After he’s captured and tortured for four years, his best and only friend saves him and helps him escape into a magical alternate dimension. There, the introvert gains social skills, becomes a powerful magical warrior/Chosen One, learns to ride dragons, and teams up with his friends (new and old) to defeat the sorcerer who tortured him for years.’

This book’s concept is… complex. This book felt like two or three books stapled together. Like I said, I wish this book was a few hundred pages shorter. I enjoyed the worldbuilding, light though it was; I enjoyed the characterization. But ultimately, the good parts were held back by the bad, at least a little.

Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (B-)


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

I enjoyed the protagonist Aram, for the reasons I explained above. Having a painfully introverted protagonist was fun, because I like reading about protagonists like myself.

The side characters were also good… but not great. To explain, I need to explain the plot briefly. Aram is a magically powerful person, who, if tortured, produces magic which can be stolen. He is captured and tortured early on (the torture happens off-screen, if you’re squeamish about that). At the midway point in this novel Aram escapes to a safe place, where he heals from the years of torture and makes friends after years of being friendless. I enjoyed the fact that he makes these friends, but most of these characters don’t have much to their personality besides being Aram’s friends. I wish the author did a little more to make all of them unique.

The villains in this were very monochromatically villainous. There were two factions of evildoers in this: the Exhilari, and the Archons. The Exhilari are the primary antagonists in the non-magical world, while the archons are the antagonists in the magical world.

The Archon faction were very much so evil-for-the-sake-of-evil. They stole people’s souls, murdered unicorns and enslaved dragons. This is a classic Hero’s Journey, so having a pure evil antagonist goes with the territory. I felt very ‘meh’ about them. I’ve read books in this sub-genre before, and the bad guys are usually evil incarnate. It’s nothing special.

The Exhilari had more nuance to them, in part because the protagonist Markus was a member of the Exhilari for a little while. I enjoyed reading about them. They were evil, to be sure, but they claimed their evil had a motive. The Exhilari fight against ghostly demons who burst into the non-magical world on a regular basis. To fight them, they need magic. The only way to get magic is by torturing magical creatures, like Aram. From the Exhilari perspective, they have no choice but to be evil for the sake of saving the world.

Leading the Exhilari is Sergan, who is a Very Bad Man. Sergan is guilty of everything from murder, to sexism to slavery. The author in me liked him, and didn’t like him. I liked him, because he was REALLY easy to hate. I spent 3/4’s of this book rooting for his death, which is great! Sergan is compelling because he’s so evil. Unfortunately, Sergan being so evil also makes the more nuanced Exhilari (doing evil for the sake of good) less cool. I personally would have liked if Sergan had more redeemable qualities to play into the Exhilari’s noble-but-evil nature.

Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (B)


PACING AND STRUCTURE

This book is long. It felt like a duology/trilogy stuffed into one book. If you want a lot of content for the price of one book, here you go. HOWEVER, if you want a tight, well paced story which rapidly gets you from beginning to end… this ain’t it. The book never felt bloated or flabby, which many overlong books feel like; it felt like multiple stories jammed together into one book.

As a result of this multi-story structure, I’m having difficulty examining this using my traditional storytelling formats. So I’m going to try something new and summarize this book using an episodic story structure.

  1. Aram and Markus in town.
  2. The heroes run from the Exhilari.
  3. Markus helps Aram escape the torture dungeons (aka insane asylum).
  4. Aram recovers in dragonland.
  5. Aram begins training
  6. Sergan+Markus invade dragonland.
  7. Aram and Markus train together.
  8. Markus fights the Archons+Exhilari army, while Aram protects the unicorns
  9. The Final Battle

Examining this, I think these story beats can be broken up into the following acts.

Act 1: Aram and Markus in town

Act 2: On the run from the Exhilari/In Exhilari school

Act 3: Escaping the cellars/Recovery/Training beginning

Act 4: The War, pre-getting dragons (Sergan+Markus invade dragonland)

Act 5: The War, post-getting dragons

Act 6: The Final Battle

Personally, Acts 2 and 3 were my favorite acts. They were easily the darkest Acts. They had to do with Aram’s fleeing the Exhilari, and then captivity in the Exhilari magic extraction cellars, where he was tortured. It was very emotionally intense act, and theme-wise it had insane asylum vibes. Aram is an undiagnosed person with autism, so having him being held in captivity and subjected to experiments with other neuro-atypicals was both very dark, and also had the ring of emotional truth.

I personally liked act 6 the least. It was by that point I felt this book was getting a bit long in the tooth. I felt that the book could have ended after the confrontation with Sergan in the cavern (Act 4), and then it could have ended again with Aram’s fighting the enemy Champion and Markus fighting Sergan (Act 5). Having an Act 6 happen after that just felt like a lot.

Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (B)


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

I enjoyed the plot. This book had 2 major POVs, with Aram and Markus… but really the book was all about Aram. The entire narrative revolved around him. He was the Chosen One in all but name. If you’re not a fan of Chosen Ones, you wouldn’t like this.

HOWEVER, the Chosen Ones in this are of the Jedi variety, not the Messiah variety. The Champions (as the Chosen are called in this book) are part of an order of warrior monks who train in magic, get special swords and ride dragons. Aram is special, but not too special. There were other Chosen Ones before him, and there will be more after him. I felt this added stakes to the story, because all the prior Champions failed to solve the book’s problem, so it was entirely possible Aram would fail it too.

I frequently hear the complaint that Chosen Ones and protagonists don’t deserve the dramatic escalation of power they gain over the course of a novel. I personally don’t see that as the case in this novel. The author of this book earned this dramatic character arc of torture victim-to-Chosen One, by employing a montage sequence of scenes where Aram was healed of his emotional trauma, trained in swordplay(and frequently lost), practiced his magic, and tested himself against supernatural monsters. I’ve complained about this book’s length, but in this case the length served to give the dramatic Chosen One arc believability by giving it time to breathe.

I liked how the protagonist’s status in-story changed from Act to Act. In Act 1 he was the weird kid in town who was obsessed with tying knots. He then became a fugitive, a torture victim, a patient in recovery, an apprentice Chosen One, a Chosen One, and finally the greatest Chosen One to ever exist.

Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (A-)


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

I enjoyed the author’s voice. It was of the classic fantasy mold, using somewhat archaic language. There was nothing exceptional to it, but I felt that it was at time aesthetically pretty.

The book’s theme was unexpected strength in the meek. In this case, the protagonist has autism, and is constantly called thickheaded and bullied as a result. Like I mentioned above, this reaches it’s peak when he’s put in the Exhilari cellars (aka an insane asylum) and tortured to extract magic out of him. He escapes with the help of his friends, and finds the strength from within to grow and exceed the expectations of his tormentors/bullies.

I give the Authorial Voice: (B+)


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

This has an interesting setting. This book takes place in two parallel realities, one with magic and one without. There are dragons, (hornless) unicorns, and magic which uses knots in the weave of reality. I found it to be both well-realized and well worth reading.

I give the Setting: (B)


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

I like the audiobook narrator. I felt he added a good deal of personality to some of the side characters who were otherwise forgettable. I can recommend it.

I give the Audiobook: (A)


LESSONS LEARNED

  • This book doesn’t tread new ground genre-wise. This is a very classic Hero’s Journey. But it is nonetheless enjoyable. The moral of the story is that you can write a new version of an old story, but as long as you make it enjoyable it might find an audience.
  • Part of the reason why I enjoyed this book so much is because the protagonist reminds me of me. Having diverse characters in books is a good thing, because it lets a new audience seem themselves in their books.

SUMMARY

This is a competently written book in the Hero’s Journey mold. What makes it special is it’s nontraditional introverted, non-masculine, autistic protagonist. If you want to read a good yarn with a cool protagonist, check this out.


Goodreads

Genres/Tagwords: Fantasy, YA, Dragons, Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy

Similar books:

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:

  • None

Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

  1. A Critique of ‘Sharpe’s Tiger’ by Bernard Cromwell
  2. A Review of ‘Fires of Vengeance’ by Evan Winter
  3. A Critique/Review of ‘The Song of the Shattered Sands’ series by Bradley P. Beaulieu
    1. A Critique of ‘When Jackals Storm the Walls’ By Bradley P Beaulieu
  4. A Critique of ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’ by Robin Hobb
  5. A Literary Study of ‘A Master of Djinn’ by P. Djeli Clark
  6. A Review of ‘The Haunting of Tram Car 015’ by P. Djeli Clark
  7. Why you should read ‘Rings, Swords and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature’ by Michael D. C. Drout
  8. A Literary Study of ‘Gideon the Ninth’ by Tamsyn 

And The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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