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TITLE: The Shadow of Black Wings, Book One of The Year of the Dragon
AUTHOR: James Calbraith
PUBLISHER: Flying Squid (July 2012-ebook & paperback)
LENGTH: 338 pages
SUMMARY: (adapted from amazon.com)
An ancient empire stands on the brink of a civil war. His arrival may push it over the edge.
It is the sixteenth year of Queen Victoria’s enlightened rule and the world trembles before the might of her ironclad navy and the dreaded Dragon Corps. The largest ship ever built sails from the Brigstow Harbour on a journey to the mysterious lands of the Orient. Its load: a regiment of the Royal Marines and Bran ap Dylan – freshly graduated in Dracology from the Llambed Academy of Mystic Arts.
On the other side of this world, the empire of Yamato has been sealed from the rest of the world for the last two centuries. A wizard’s daughter, Sato, witnesses her father joining an anti-government conspiracy. Her friend Nagomi, training to be a priestess, is haunted by dark visions that she must keep secret. Neither of them is aware that a change is coming to Yamato… on the wings of a dragon.
REVIEW: The summary of this book does not do it justice. In fact, I had to make some changes to the wording of the summary itself to make it fit better to how I read the story. Almost until the last word, the summary seems to indicate that this is a piece of historical fiction. It is not. There are dragons and magic from almost the first page. Thankfully, before diving into the book, I had read nothing about it; my impression of the book overall might have been extremely different if I had expected the true Victorian Empire rather than this excellent parallel world.
Calbraith has created an EXTENSIVE and exquisite “alternate” version of Queen Victoria’s world. There are recognizable elements of the Victorian Empire, its reach, and the competing and/or colonized countries. But there is also a layered world of magic that exists within this somewhat familiar history. Even with the references to real history, this book is what I would call high fantasy. There are complex political and military maneuverings as well as entire races of people and dragons to absorb. The Asian element of the story made some of the names and places a little difficult for me because, as an English teacher, I always do my best to pronounce names correctly even in my head as I read. The descriptions of setting and character alike are rich and detailed. The inclusion of a map helps keep it all straight but Calbraith’s attention to specifics and detailed histories of each of these places and peoples is impressive.
The characters are equally layered. It was so refreshing to read a main character with the correct balance of adolescent cockiness and normal, developmental self-doubt. These days so many books make their teenage main character either too mature and insightful for their age or the character is so whiny I almost can’t take it. Bran is ready to be out on his own and shows that independence while also admitting to himself (and occasionally others) that he may not be as grown-up as he’d like everyone to think. He battles with self-doubt but it’s not cloying. Sato and Nagomi are a well-balanced pair. I’m hoping to get a little more character development from them in the subsequent books in the series.
The storylines are well-written but the organization of the book as a whole threw me a little. It is the ONLY complaint I have about the book. The Prologue seems to float on it’s own until about two-thirds of the way through the book. The first half of the book proper deals with Bran’s story. Then, rather abruptly, the reader is thrown into Yamato with Sato and Nagomi with no transition. One doesn’t even realize it is Yamato until a ways into this second part of the book. I would have liked to see alternating chapters or perhaps the different threads labeled as Part I and Part II or something. I was utterly confused for about 15 pages before I realized the stories would intersect. Something similar happens at the end of Book One, I assume to lead readers into the next book. I just would have liked a smoother transition.
Overall, this is worth your time if you are a fantasy fan. The detail and intricacy of the writing is impressive. With inclusion of races and histories, it almost reminds me of Tolkein – in Asia. With dragons. I think high school fantasy fans will eat it up. Middle school fantasy fans will like the story but some of the nuances may be lost on them. I’m interested to see where the story goes in the rest of the series and would suggest we all keep an eye on Calbraith.
** Note on cover art: the cover you see here is an alternate version of the book’s cover. I like it better than the one featured on the US amazon.com site. Honestly, the other cover with the boy on the front put me off a little. I was happy to see they’ve converted to a different cover for all of the books.