Character is the crucible by which authors prove their mettle, and this is especially so with the fantasy genre. I am a fan of the genre but have found that too often authors subordinate character to setting or magic. Lord of the Rings was formative for me, but the characters were too often black and white, sometimes not resembling the humanity of the individual flipping through its pages. In his most recent work, Rage of Dragons, Evan Winter crafts characters as real as I am, even though they are placed in a fantastical environment where dragons fly, and warriors transform into hulk-like beasts.
Rage of Dragons is gritty, and deals with mental health, the cost of war, and the value of a human life, amongst a plethora of other issues. This book is unique to the fantasy genre in that it is steeped in African culture, and Evan Winter has said that he “Wanted to pay homage to my heritage.” The homage is rich as the people group Winter creates, the Omehi, feel real and steeped in history of their own.
While some fantasy epics follow several different characters through any number of adventures, Rage of Dragons follows just one, Tau Tafari, a commoner. Tau is on a journey of revenge against his father’s killers. His journey is dark, and his quest to become the greatest warrior to live is addicting. Winter creates a world where stakes are high, yet characters are able to rise to the occasion in reasonable ways without using magic. In Tau’s case, he is handicapped in his bloodline. He is only a commoner, not a noble capable of becoming a massive fighting machine. His ceiling is fixed, or so common knowledge would have him believe.
Winter creates interesting ways for Tau to improve in his quest to exact vengeance on high nobles who murdered his father. Tau must become a fighter capable of facing nobles whose bloodline gives them a distinct advantage. He finds a way to send his spirit to hell each night, where time moves more slowly, in order to train himself as much as possible. Tau dies thousands of deaths in his quest to improve. It is dark, it is difficult, it is painful; but Tau succeeds. Tau dies each night in a myriad of graphic ways, but eventually he becomes the best. He transforms himself into a mad dervish of death, such that when he faces the greatest warrior the Omehi people can breed, Tau wins, bucking all conventional wisdom concerning the natural limitations of commoners.
The magic system in this book follows a distinct set of rules which I find to be refreshing and easily comprehensible. According to the dust jacket,
One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine. Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war.
This simplicity allows for the author to create unique situations where the limits of these rules are apparent, and to examine how humans are treated based on bloodline.
This book is filled with issues like castes, the human condition, and Tau’s journey as a study in the ultimate cost of revenge. Winter creates an environment where the reader ingests ideas as well as a story. It is written from a largely western perspective, meaning that the author would argue that each human has value, and the aristocratic machine does itself a disservice to forget humanity’s value. To that end, Tau’s incessant training, and ultimate bucking of societal norms by defeating nobles in battle, creates a caste revolution. He becomes a beacon of hope for common people the world over, but his goal was never to become a hero or a figure to whom others can look for guidance. Tau is bitter and hardened by the fires of loss, and his singular mission is to kill in an effort to exact revenge. As such, Rage of Dragons is a dark tale, where Tau does anything in his power to improve himself, even damning himself to insanity and thousands of deaths in hell.
All of the darkness aside, Tau Tafari is a character the reader will find themselves rooting for throughout his many struggles because there is always the very real possibility that Tau might fail. It is for that reason, that I say Evan Winter does a magnificent job at creating his characters. He delivers different character archetypes that never delve into cliches. He creates a teacher with a jaded past, worthy opponents for Tau’s fury, as well as Tau himself. The ensemble all serve Winter’s well-rounded yarn.
I found Rage of Dragons to be an addicting page turner and one of the better fantasies i’ve read in the past few years. As an aspiring author myself, it is exciting to see a writer break through with such a resounding first book. It is one I cannot recommend enough.