The Adamantine Palace
By Stephen Deas
(Gollancz, 19 March 2009)
Dragons have become increasingly humanised in the last couple of decades. Their popularity in the speculative fiction genre certainly hasn't diminished (you only need to look at the popularity of Naomi Novik's Temeraire novels for evidence of that) but their primal ferocity has been gradually replaced with intelligence and docility. Which is fine as far as it goes, but this transition perhaps left some folk longing for dragons to return to their roots as the terrifying beasts of legend. Simon Spanton at Gollancz certainly felt this way, and more importantly he thought others did as well. Subsequently he commissioned unknown author Stephen Deas - on the back of a synopsis and a few sample chapters - to write a trilogy that placed dragons back in in their rightful place: the top of the food chain.
Spanton turned out to be right. The first novel in Deas's trilogy, The Adamantine Palace, apparently sold over 8000 copies in its first month of release.
Yet while this is a novel that unmistakably revels in the sheer destructive force of dragons, it is one where the story is actually largely driven by the human factor. To say the dragons are mere window-dressing would be wide of the mark, but The Adamantine Palace, at its heart, is a novel about human emotions and foibles - lust, greed and ambition chief among them. Make no mistake, the dragons play a prominent role, but this is essentially a tale of shady politics and political intrigue, where a number of factions jostle for the ultimate prize - the empire itself.
Chief among these competitors is Prince Jehal, a pleasingly cunning and sardonic individual, driven by his insatiable ambition. Jehal is easily the most engaging character, not just because of his witty personality but also because of his determination to attain his goals by means both foul and fair. He's both repulsive and riveting in equal measure - the sort of character it's hard not to cheer for, even though he's a lying, murdering bastard.
The rest of the cast lack Jehal's magnetism, though despite this there are some other engaging figures. Hyram is one, a man who is fighting both his failing health and the political machinations of the rivals that want his position. Zafir is another; a newly-crowned queen with an ambition and ruthlessness that matches Jehal's. In fact, the relationship between the two is particularly intriguing - it's enjoyable to consider whether their remarks and acts towards each other are genuine, or all part of yet another political game.
Some of the other characters could have done with a little more development and depth. The background of Sollos and Kemir could have done with more exploration to really clarify their motivations (and why the POV for their scenes switches from Sollos to Kemir halfway through the book, rather than just sticking with Kemir from the start, is a little bewildering). Queen Shazira doesn't come across quite as strongly as some of the other players and her relationships with her three daughters may have benefitted from some added tension or conflict, just to spice them up a little. Meteroa is another character that would have benefitted from more exposure, as he shows hints of being an interesting customer, though perhaps his time will come.
The strongest aspect of Deas's debut is the pacing (perhaps born from the speed at which he sketched out the basic framework for the trilogy, which allegedly took him only a single weekend). The chapters are pleasingly short, meaning that events unfold at a relentless speed that holds the reader's attention. Furthermore, the lean, brisk prose ensures the narrative doesn't get bogged down in the reams of detail that sometimes derails epic fantasy novels. At times it's easy to forget you're reading an epic fantasy, such is the direct approach that Deas takes. And this is a good thing - it's refreshing to see feasts and other typical events dealt with in the space of a paragraph. The focus is very much on the characters and the events, not on superfluous detail. The downside of this is arguably a lack of historical detail; a touch more depth to the world would have been welcome. Yet it should be said that there some very neat ideas here, particularly with regards to the methods that humans use to keep the dragons in check - and the consequences when these methods cannot be implemented.
Verdict: On the whole, The Adamantine Palace is a strong debut, mixing intriguing politicking with the brute force of dragons. Uneven characterisation is made up for with excellent pacing and deft plotting, and the result is an absorbing, satisfying read with plenty left in the locker for the future instalments (of which the second, The King of the Crags, was released last month). Dragons are back at the top of the food chain, in all their fire-breathing primal glory.