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:: Chasing Dragons

(‘Dragonchaser’ by Tim Stretton)

 by Paul Rhoads 

If the self-respecting reviewer could bring himself to use the phrase as ‘a thrilling yarn of intrigue, adventure and romance’, he might, with both economy and exactitude, summarize Tim Stretton’s new novel Dragonchaser.  But such a reviewer, lacking this option, inconveniently must resort to circumlocution, and there is no way neatly to encapsulate the multi-layered ballet which Stretton has concocted. 

Captain Mirko Ascalon, renegade of the redoubtable Garganet navy, catches a dragon by the tail, even several at once. Most prominent among them is Dragonchaser herself, a racing galley unbeaten for many seasons. Popular enthusiasm for Dragonchaser is the lever by which the unscrupulous grandee, the Peremptor of Paladria, Geidrus of House Luz, maintains his popularity among the unenfranchised great-unwashed and, thanks to this precarious sporting supremacy, holds his post. So when the ambitious Bartazan of Bartazan House offers the obscure and impecunious Ascalon the captaincy of the Bartazan galley, Serendipity, the forthright seaman finds himself in the eye of a political storm he lacks both the local culture and devious personality to confront. 

Unlike Dragonchaser, Serendipity is not at the top of her form. Her crew is a heterogeneous set of discouraged slaves. Her helmsman owes his position to nepotism. And yet, to humble the House of Luz and avenge himself upon his enemies, Bartazan requires that Ascalon beat Dragonchaser in the Margariad, the great annual race. As winner popular sentiment would tilt in Bartazan’s favor, generating pressures certain grand electors could not resist. Ascalon understands none of this, and the proud and rigid Bartazan allows no scope for those adjustments without which a win in the Margariad is impossible. As determined as he is naive, Ascalon eventually takes a flexible approach. But he is not alone in his efforts to influence the outcome of the Margariad, and most of the others care nothing for sport. Indeed, Paladria is rife with plots, spies, and blade-wielding lurkers. The spies sometimes take seductive forms, but here Ascalon turns out to have an advantage when his straightforwardness strikes a forgotten chord in their cynical breasts. With one thing, and then another, Captain Ascalon’s professional, and also his personal, life become terribly complicated.

If it is not untrue to say that the mood and action of Dragonchaser has something in common with works of Jack Vance such as Cugel the Clever on the one hand, or Tschai on the other, this does not close the question. If a sinister aura of magic, ‘the Old Craft’, hangs over Paladria, if a brutal and enervating religion poisons the Paladrian sprit, if the story is leavened with constant flashes of humor, Dragonchaser is as much a contemporary novel of sentimental psychology as an exotic machiavellian gavotte. 

Ascalon must learn both the winds and currents of the Bay of Paladria as well as the mysterious and treacherous flows of Paladrian politics, but in the end he is confronted with the greatest problem of all; the conundrum of his own personality. Stretton endows his characters with a power of introspection, an interest in the movements of their own souls, which has nothing vancian, but it is an aspect of inspiration which carries its own conviction: 

“I didn't have to tell you this,” she said, her voice throbbing with emotion. “The easiest and best thing for me would just be to let you fall in love with her. And of course you would; she’s young, she’s beautiful, she’s charming—how could you resist her? I could just let it happen, and she’d break your heart and I wouldn’t care and none of it would matter and I’d just move on to wrecking other people’s lives and tell myself that it’s all for the best…” 

The unrelenting multi-faceted intrigue comes into focus at the races leading up to the Margariad, which Stretton makes as exciting as a match of hussade or hadaul. But a major aspect in the fabric of the narrative is the humor, which is of a certain vancian cast: 

“Do you know the residence of the Lady Catzendralle?”

The driver, with a dark saturnine face and a great beak of a nose, sniffed thoughtfully.

“She lives at Darklings, the House Drall estate.”

“Take me there—and smartly.”

“This rattlejack knows but one speed, having but a single pacer to draw it. You may call it ‘smartly’, you may call it ‘tardy’, but our speed never varies.”

Mirko sighed. He could do without a philosopher at the reins, but the rattlejack trade seemed to attract them.

[…]

A wood of high manzipar trees loomed on the left. “We’re here”, said the driver. “This is Darklings.”

“I don't see any estate.”

“That’s why it’s called Darklings. Do you think Koopendrall is keen to have every idle sightseer in Paladria riding a rattlejack past his house? That path in the woods leads you where you want to go. I take it you have an appointment?”

“Of a sort,” said Mirko.

“I’ll wait here. You won't be long if you don’t have an appointment, and I could do with the fare for the return journey.”

“Suit yourself,” said Mirko, pressing a valut-piece into his hand. “Don’t blame me if you’re here all night.”

“The fee is one valut twenty.”

Mirko shrugged. “Consider the twenty minim deduction a loquacity tax,” he said before striding off into the manzipar wood.

 

I am looking forward to Stretton's future work.

:: Dragonchaser is a change of pace

 by Violet Kane

While Dragonchaser is by no means an untraditional fantasy, it is a combination of traditional fantasy and adventure story elements not as often seen in the fantasy genre's mainstream.

In this novel, Tim Stretton tells the story of Mirko, a galley-master of dubious reputation who has come to Paladria from abroad to escape the disgrace of his past. Bartazan, a local politician, sees the local culture of galley racing as the key to his advancement to higher office. He hires Mirko to bring his galley, Serendipity, and its crew a win over Dragonchaser, the seldom-beaten galley of his rival. Not only does Mirko find his hands full squeezing a win out of Serendipity, but he finds himself in the midst of a number of political players and their games, including many more subtle than Bartazan's.

Dragonchaser is what one might call a low-magic fantasy, and certainly magic plays little, if any, substantive part in this story. One might better call it an adventure story, considering the sportive competition at its center and its subplots of romance and political intrigue. The ostensible plot of this novel runs a predictable enough course; the individual character interactions, while not incredibly surprising, are also not trite. Stretton's prose-style has its witty moments in the Jack Vance tradition of phrase-turning.

Dragonchaser should be enjoyable to most readers accustomed to traditional fantasy and adventure stories. While not a character-centered story, per se, Stretton's emphasis on character is appreciated.

Violet "Violanthe" Kane is the Webmaster and Founder of ARWZ.com. She is an editor of ARWZ Literary Zine and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Medieval studies.

 

 


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