Dragon Soul is the third book in Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett’s Volstovic cycle, following Havemercy (which I absolutely loved) and Shadow Magic (which left me feeling rather flat). Happily, I was thrilled to discover that Dragon Soul was much more on a par with Havemercy, and I flew through it without once feeling bogged down or bored.
In terms of chronology, as far as I can work out the events of Dragon Soul occur at the same time as those of Shadow Magic. Shadow Magic deals with the machinations of the Ke-Han court and Volstovic peace envoys, whereas, hooray hooray, Dragon Soul returns us to what remains of the Air Corps and their dragons (although sadly, not very much remains at all). It’s told from the perspective of Rook and his brother Thom (who were main characters in Havemercy), a Ke-Han woman named Madoka and a Volstovic spy called Malahide. Rook is finding it extremely hard to adjust to civilian life after the end of the war, and is still grieving for both his dragon and his fellow airmen. He travels with Thom, looking for a distraction more than anything, but soon discovers that there is a black market trade in dragon parts from the dragons who were brought down and destroyed during the war. Being an extremely volatile person even before he had a reason to grieve, Rook is determined to track down any remaining traces of Havemercy so that she doesn’t become a commodity to be traded and collected, but can be laid to rest instead. (It’s actually quite moving). As his younger, long-suffering brother, poor Thom goes where Rook goes. Meanwhile Th’Esar has sent his spy Malahide on a mission to track down any remaining dragon pieces so that they can’t be used by any enemy forces, and the enemy force in question (a Ke-Han magician) implants a dragon compass into Madoka’s hand which forces her to also track down any bits of dragon, with the help of a soldier named Badger. The story essentially becomes a quest, as all four characters find themselves tracking the same item, which turns out to be the soul of Havemercy.
I really enjoyed Dragon Soul, far more than I enjoyed reading Shadow Magic, and I found that a lot of the problems I had with the earlier books have been well resolved. The four character voices all seem very distinct from each other but don’t fall into the realm of caricature, and I felt that the standard of the writing itself had also improved quite substantially. I think the authors’ inexperience was occasionally visible in the earlier books, but it wasn’t something I noticed in Dragon Soul and it felt much smoother to read. As always, the changes between author (I assume there were changes) were completely seamless, and if I hadn’t read two names on the cover I would easily have believed that the book was written by one person throughout.
The plot itself was much more gripping for me than Shadow Magic, and there was a lot more action taking place. I mostly enjoyed reading from all the different perspectives (although I did occasionally have a few issues with Malahide which I’ll go into later), but of course I was thrilled to return to Rook because I loved reading about the Dragon Corps in Havemercy, and Rook was definitely my favourite character. He’s still a total dick, but I really enjoyed seeing his relationship with Thom develop, and the subtle changes in the ways in which they regard each other and come to understand each other more. I really felt that there was great character development in Rook especially, and even though he acted like a complete jerk a lot of the time, I felt it was more justified than in Havemercy because in Dragon Soul he’s really struggling to deal with his grief, whereas in Havemercy he was just an angry bitch. He could be cruel without reason in Havemercy, but in Dragon Soul his character felt much more understandable and relatable. Plus it was absolutely heart-breaking to see him having to say goodbye to Havemercy, and I definitely shed a wee tear over it. The one criticism I have with Rook’s character is the fact that he swears all the time, which does completely lessen the effect, but at the same time I know people who really do talk like that, and I suppose it’s not too hard to believe considering his background.
One of the downsides of using first person past tense though can be the removal of a sense of danger, and I did really notice this when Rook was stabbed during the climax of the book, as I knew he couldn’t die because he was telling his story in the past tense. That was a bit of a shame because I love his character and so I could really have feared for him if it wasn’t the case, but maybe the authors are too nice to emotionally manipulate me in that way. I did find the whole climax to be fairly muddled and hazy though, I wasn’t really sure what was happening and where everyone was, or whether each character’s experience was happening simultaneously or not. I would also have liked to know the villains more. My idea of Fan wasn’t too bad, but I felt like I knew hardly anything about the magician at all, and I couldn’t work out what he looked like or what his motives were. I found it very hard to picture him because I knew so little about him. Considering he’s such an important character in terms of kick-starting Madoka’s storyline and fuelling her motives, I thought he could have done with a bit more page time as the ‘unknown enemy’ aspect of the book was a bit unsatisfying. I think I could have been made to feel much more invested in the outcome if I’d known more about exactly what the magician and Fan were up to, and what sort of threat they posed.
There was a lot that I appreciated about this book though, such as the subtle hints at a romance between Madoka and Badger without the reader being beaten about the head with it. I don’t read romance books at all but I don’t mind a thread of romance as long as it’s not the main storyline, because I really don’t have any interest in that. This was subtle enough that it could be a will-they-won’t-they, except that it was so far down on the list of storyline priorities because, frankly, there’s more important stuff going on, and I think that was a fact recognised by both characters as well. It definitely felt like there was an element of each character thinking ‘I like this person, but this isn’t the time or the place because we’ve got shit to do’, and I really appreciated that. It was sweet and I think it did add to the story, but it was diluted to just the right amount, and I thought it was handled really well.
I also really appreciated certain aspects of Malahide’s character, although in this case I felt the handling was a little clumsy. It was clear throughout that Malahide had a secret, and I managed to work it out during the final quarter of the book. I didn’t mind working it out because I still had to wait to see if my suspicions were correct, and actually I thought that having a transgender character in a young adult fantasy novel was a really cool idea. On the whole, I thought it was done well. It didn’t become a major plot point or a force for discussion because it was discreet. Only one character ever worked out Malahide’s secret, and I thought it was great that being transgender was just an aspect of Malahide’s character that I knew as a reader but that other characters weren’t aware of, which meant that it didn’t become a big deal. It was just an aspect of Malahide’s character, but it didn’t become her character if that makes sense, and I thought that was a really positive inclusion to the story. I wasn’t so keen on the way Malahide portrayed herself though, although I think this is largely due to her life of espionage rather than her life as a transgender person. She always seemed to be playing a role, but it was a role that no one was ever convinced by. She had a tendency to fall into an almost simpering stereotype of a lady, which didn’t really sit too well with me. I think this was due to her constant attempts to disguise her life as a spy though. All the different disguises and the different parts she seemed to be playing meant that I never really felt that I knew her as a character, and I couldn’t tell what was her genuine behaviour and outlook and what was put on for an audience. She did also describe herself as a ‘queer little thing’ a couple of times at the start of the book, which made me feel quite uncomfortable, and I always felt more distanced from her than any of the other characters because she was so hard to pin down.
All in all though, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dragon Soul. It was a really entertaining romp, and it kept me on my toes while also making me cry. The development of Rook’s character in particular was especially touching, and now I love him even more (even though he is an arse). I can’t wait to get started reading Steel Hands, the final instalment in the series, and I’m really looking forward to reading about the remaining members of the Dragon Corps again.