Dragonswood by Janet Lee Carey. Copyright 2012. Young Adult Fantasy. ISBN 9780803735040
The peace between the Fey and humans on Wilde Island is cracking. When the witch hunter comes to Tess’s village, she and her two friends must leave their families and flee for their lives, or be drowned for possessing corrupted power. Tess finds aid in the hands of a young huntsman who watches over part of the mystical and mysterious Dragonswood, but can she trust him with her life—or her heart?
Style and Plot:
Dragonswood is written in the first-person, following a young lady named Tess, who is the daughter of an abusive blacksmith and possesses the gift of fire-sight—seeing visions in the fire. Now, normally writing from the first-person perspective gives the author the chance to show the reader the world through the eyes of a specific character, but in this case, author Janet Lee Carey breaks one of the most important rules of writing: show, don’t tell. Tess neither experiences nor sees the world; she explains it. This leads to very little description of surroundings or events, scant worldbuilding, and an overwhelming sense of everything happening in a void. It’s obvious that the story is supposed to be borrowing from Arthurian legend, but the how and why is much less obvious. Where, exactly, is Wilde Island? Is it part of Britain, or separate? How is it ruled? What does it look like? What’s the significance of mentioning King Arthur and Merlin when they don’t add anything to the story? The author has so many opportunities to go into vivid detail of, well, pretty much everything, but she passes them all up in favor of semi-suspenseful plot developments, or Tess’s long-winded and whiny rehashes of everything that’s already happened in the novel.
Because of reasons related to this, the novel reads very flat. There is little realistic emotion—even in the first few chapters, which contain arrests and a torture scene—and in a book where a large part of the plot focuses on a romance, this is a terrible thing. Tess doesn’t treat her friends any differently than she treats Garth, which is to say, she hardly treats anyone like anything at all. There are also several plot lines to follow throughout the novel, but they all seemed to be dropped without answer after a few chapters to make room for the next one, and then they’re all haphazardly “solved” during the climax of the book (the term “climax” is used loosely, the ending is no more dramatic than any of the rest of it). There is so little impact, the whole thing might never have happened at all. This leaves the book with a sense of being non-committal and unsatisfying, and leaves readers with a sense of having wasted their time.
Finally, Carey should invest some time in going back and relearning the elements of writing, as her writing is as choppy and flat as the plot, with strange dialogue and chapters ending in the middle of conversations.
Our main character has had a hard life. She’s the daughter of a blacksmith who beats her and her mother, which eventually leaves one of Tess’s ears permanently disfigured and deaf. This would be a realistic touch to her character, except that only the disfigurement is ever noticed by Tess: although she mentions her deafness, she never seems to have a problem hearing anything.
The abuse aspect is one of the big problems with the novel: Because of the blacksmith, Tess has learned not to trust men. That’s fine, it’s logical and realistic. Of course, this sets up her character to go on into an anti-husband spiel at the very beginning of the novel because, as Tess observes, almost every married woman in her village is beaten by her husband. This thus establishes Tess as a Strong, Capable Female Protagonist (with far too progressive ideals for the time).
Now, the somewhat questionable situation of almost every woman being beaten by her husband aside, a big deal is made of Tess not being “like other girls,” as if being like other girls (that is, wanting to care for a husband and children and keep house) is a bad thing. While the promotion of a strong attitude for women is commendable, is it really accomplishing anything if it tears down other, perfectly legitimate attitudes?
Furthermore, the abuse only seems to exist for two purposes: one, to make Tess’s life worse, and two, to make the reader truly understand how great of a man Garth is because he doesn’t strike Tess when she thinks he will. Tess is always cringing from Garth—which is a realistic reaction, that’s not the problem here—but just not hitting someone does not a good man make, and it’s insulting to people who’ve been through abuse themselves.
Tess’s friends, Meg and Poppy, are hardly better than Tess herself, but at least they each have a (singular) distinguishable personality trait—but nothing too original, of course, why stray from clichés if they work so well? Similarly, all of the antagonists feel like stock, so it’s hard to work up any actual feeling for the supposed atrocities they’re committing (another thing Carey neglected to expound on). Overall, a lot more time could have been spent on developing the characters, and it might have made up somewhat for the lacking plot—but there wasn’t, so it doesn’t.
Dragonswood promises so much, but fails to deliver on almost everything. 1 out of 5 stars.