The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas


The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas

Published by Gollancz, March 2009 (ARC copy received)

350 pages

ISBN: 9780575083738 (Hardback); 9780575083745 (Trade Paperback)


Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit


Ah, Dragons! Otherworldly, yet surprisingly comforting.

So here we have a new book from a new writer that is pretty much about a medieval-style world with dragons. It’s probably a little quirky in that the title of the book doesn’t really reveal it is about dragons (though I suspect the cover will.) Although the Palace and its many eyries are an important setting for the novel, it’s not apparent from that title that the tale is a High Fantasy, with, perhaps more than the Palace, dragons at its centre.


What we get here is a rompingly good, character-focused tale, with royal families that have clearly taken a leaf out of history. In a style reminiscent of George RR Martin’s Westeros or perhaps from real-life The Borgias, the seven realms are represented here by one of the most rampant, back-stabbing, adulterating, self-centred and arrogant groups you’re likely to read. They think nothing of sleeping with one family member and poisoning another. In fact, to reflect this, one member of royalty is dealt with in the first five pages of the book.


With such a background then it is perhaps no surprise that poisons and potions are a key feature in the book, for more than one reason. Not only are some accused of poisoning their elders in the book, others are kept active via a mysterious elixir surreptitiously created by the Alchemists of this tale. Furthermore, the Alchemist’s key duty is to keep in tow the dragons of this tale. 


Here dragons are a key part of society, used for royal carriage, goods transport, for battle and troop deployment. As you might therefore expect, they are ridden by Riders, who are often of a regal persuasion, and looked after by Scales, a nomenclature given to the servants whose close and constant proximity to the dragons from hatching mean that their skin develops a condition which I will describe as ‘terminal eczema’.  The position of dragons in this society is therefore one of domestic servility, though they’re not the sort to be found on the fire hearth at home.    


The story mainly deals with the consequences created by the breeding of a flawless white dragon, a major wedding dowry in a piece of political machination (often found in royal circles). Named Snow, its attempted murder and subsequent escape into the wilderness has consequences for all concerned. Snow’s escape leads to her growing up without the regular dosage of an alchemist’s potion, a circumstance that leads to her ‘awakening’, a remembrance of other lives in a time when dragons did not do the bidding of Riders but spent their time destroying humans (called ‘Little Ones’) on a whim and eating, occasions when dragons were not so docile. As a result, Snow’s subsequent return to the world of humans means that Snow is looking for revenge and revolution. It is time for dragons to be free….


There are a lot of pleasing qualities with this debut novel. Though the tropes are not particularly new, it’s very well done. The life cycle of a dragon is quite different and suggests some interesting concepts. Above all, the book is engaging from the start, with the reader is drawn into the High Fantasy trappings very quickly – unrest and power struggles in the monarchy, life amongst the lowlife servant culture is soon to be altered forever and so on – and the pages kept turning very quickly after that.


The structure of the book is in that modern MTV-fastcut style, so beloved on our TV screens, where there are 70 short chapters which kept moving from one character to another. This kept the ball rolling for me but may annoy some readers as it flits from perspective to perspective.


These characters are interesting, and their interactions are reminiscent of the political shenanigans of the world of Westeros, though without that world’s complexity. The human characters (unlike those of Pern) are devious, manipulative and self-centred, more reminiscent of Westeros or Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series. To reflect this, there is swearing and sex here, though not particularly explicit. Like many recent tales of this genre, there are heroes and villains, (not to mention heroines and villainesses), all with that sense of ambiguity which raises the plot and makes the book more interesting. There’s a nice mixture of strong male and female characters to give the book an ambiguous social structure. The dialogue between the characters is pleasantly appropriate. Having read some recent debuts where the language didn’t work for me, this one, on the whole, did.


The world building is reasonable, though not the greatest strength of the book. From the Adamantine Palace itself, a symbol of the High Fantasy opulence inherent in the novel, to the types of dragons bred for use – fighting, racing, breeding – this is a confident book that belies its author’s relatively new publication. The dragons are pleasingly un-human and their sense of power is quite apparent throughout the book.


There was much here that reminded me of the character-driven novels of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern: indeed, many dragon devotees will remember a white dragon as a character of importance in a number of McCaffrey’s books. However, these dragons are not the cosy horse-surrogates of Pern, nor the eager-to-please servants of Novik’s Temeraire, though there are broad similarities.  The dragons of Deas are like rather like other wild creatures – angry, defiant, stubborn, vengeful. And this book is all the better for it.


It is a difficult thing to write a novel that uses many of the icons of High Fantasy and make it enjoyable; this is something though that Stephen has done here. The book is an entertaining mix of Pern and Westeros, with the knowing characterisation of Abercrombie and the endearment of Novik. To be recognised alongside such authors is a real achievement. The book is a very nicely put together package that will satisfy many a Fantasy and dragon fan. 


In summary, this is a very well written book that, to my mind, is better characterised than Naomi Novik’s Temeraire and more enjoyable than Anne McCaffrey’s more recent Pern series. This is traditional-style fantasy, but written in a contemporary manner that should attract many new readers.  As the first of a series (clearly shown by its ending), it bodes well for Stephen’s future writing career and one that I will forward very much to reading on further.  


Mark Yon / Hobbit, October 2008



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