I promised I’d carry on with this blog series from my Novacon talk. Okay then.
This book was a revelation when I first read it in 1988 and it has stood up to re-reading since. Dragon Prince epitomises the game-changing mid-to-late 80s shift in epic fantasy from straight-forward Tolkien-alike tales to more challenging and ‘grown-up’ fiction drawing on and informed by history and human nature. There’s dragons and magic but not just for the ‘oh, wow, cool, cool’ factor. These classic elements of epic adventure become tools in the multi-faceted and believable power struggles between those princes who want to rule in the best interests of their people and those who think being born into the nobility means they can do whatever they want, indulging every desire and vice. All this is set in a vividly-realised and convincingly coherent, original world.
Every character in this book is complex, and in the case of the ‘good guys’ Prince Rohan and his Sunrunner-sorceress wife Sioned, conflicted. How can you counter someone utterly ruthless and completely without scruples without ending up compromised yourself? Because the main villain, High Prince Roelstra, is absolutely not some cardboard-cut-out Dark Lord driven by motiveless malignity. Rawn doesn’t flinch as she portrays just how absolutely absolute power can corrupt, in the hands of vengeful, spiteful man. Anyone who thinks that epic fantasy is all consolatory conservatism saying, ‘hey, patriarchal feudalism really isn’t so bad’, really needs to read this book and those that follow it.
Though not everyone’s dedicated to these power struggles, and that’s another important element. As well as the loyal princes backing Rohan, we see women whose main desire in life is to be a devoted and dedicated wife and mother, like Princess Tobin. Not because she’s forced into that role but because that’s what she chooses. There’s value in these women’s lives and in their contribution to the greater good and that’s important. There’s no hint that the only route to real merit for a female is to be faux-male. Indeed, we see the sacrifices that a forceful women must make.
Then there’s the impact of just plain bad luck, from small-scale misfortune to the utterly devastating. Heroes and villains alike have to cope with the consequences of uncaring nature and no one gets ‘plot-immunity’ to anything. All of which really challenges the reader. This is a book that demands engagement rather than merely offering entertainment to be passively absorbed.
What wasn’t revelatory about this book was seeing it written by a woman in the 80s. There were a whole host of female authors writing intelligent, challenging epic fantasy around that time – such as Elizabeth Moon, Katherine Kerr, Barbara Hambly to name merely my personal favourites. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series deserves mention too, even if she always insisted those books were Science Fiction rather than fantasy. They were all writing work to equal the finest male authors of the day, such as David Gemmell and Tad Williams, and they were equally visible back then. They’re all still writing but at times, you’d be hard pressed to know it, when all we see promoted is macho grimdarkery. Such women’s contribution to the epic fantasy genre is repeatedly and far too easily erased by all those ‘Best of’ ‘Must Read’ retrospective lists that only even mention male writers with ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ as the sole nod to female authors.
Did all these books shape my own writing? Absolutely. Do I owe any specific debt to Melanie Rawn’s work? I think so, when it comes to dragons. Much as I love the telepathic dragons of Pern and characters like Morkeleb in Hambly’s ‘Dragonsbane’, I reckon dragons should be as dangerous and unpredictable as the one that kills Prince Rohan’s father. Top predator, like the ones in my own Aldabreshin Compass series.
It may be nearly 30 years old now but Dragon Prince still deserves to be widely mentioned – and read. It was a significant book in epic fantasy’s development. So I was very pleased to be asked to write a piece on it for SFX magazine’s bookclub some while back. You can find that here.
You may also be interested in Tor.com’s Re-Reading Melanie Rawn blog series by Judith Tarr – who is herself another superb fantasy author who should go on your To Be Read list if you’re not already aware of her work.