Themes Explored: destiny, spirituality, faith, religion, acceptance, complacency, self-doubt, ethics, morality, military strategy, magic, necromancy, death, wizardry, love, romance, sword fights, growing up, friendship, loyalty, acceptance
Synopsis: The story of a young temple acolyte, Quentin, who fights evil save Mensandor, the realm of the Dragon King.
Review: The Dragon King trilogy was one of the first “grownup” fantasy adventures I ever read. This trilogy details the coming-of-age story of a young temple acolyte named Quentin. In the first book Quentin is a novice acolyte in the temple of Ariel who takes up a seemingly impossible task. He must deliver a message to the Queen in order to save the Dragon King’s kingdom before someone steals the throne. Quentin must choose between a life of complacency or a dangerous adventure. Over the course of the three books, Quentin goes from an unassuming teenager to a self-assured man. While the trilogy is not as complex or as well-written as Stephen Lawhead’s later works, the narrative is still compelling. Despite its deficiencies, I still reread the trilogy on a semi-annual basis.
The first book, In the Hall of the Dragon King is the first and weakest installment in the trilogy. Part of the problem is that the book tries to create a compelling backstory, introduce several complicated characters, and weave in several subplots all at once. There are several excellent elements to the book. The book has a strong opening that pulls the reader into the narrative. It is one of the better story openings I have read. Lawhead excels at creating interesting fantasy worlds and this one is no exception. There are strange creatures, weird powers, and interesting deities. And the magic problem is handled in a subtle manner, Durwin is shown laying aside his powers in order to not corrupt himself. This serves as a foil to Nimrood who allows his magic to fully corrupt himself. Some of my problems are that Lawhead uses way too many adverbs and adjectives, sometimes quite repetitively. A lot of the story is “told” instead of “shown”. As a result, we know that Nimrood is evil but he never feels evil. Also, Quentin never has too work hard to achieve a favorable outcome. Things just go his way once too often. Perhaps the greatest drawback is the lack of Theido’s characterization. He is the most compelling character in the entire trilogy but is not given a lot of depth. And I find that annoying every time I read the book.
Book number two, The Warlords of Nin, picks up shortly after the end of the first book. In this installment, Quentin and company have to embark on a magical quest in order to fight off a foreign invasion. This book has two main narratives: 1) Quentin’s quest to build a prophesized sword and 2) Theido and the Dragon King’s attempts to keep the Warlords of Nin at bay. First for the positive aspects of the narrative. Lawhead progresses the main characters from the first book. Quentin significantly evolves from his shy acolyte persona. Nin is an interesting villain; though the parallelism between him and Attila the Hun is heavy handed. Most of the action scenes occur when Theido leads a charge against Nin. The closing battle contains the strongest and most emotional writing in the book. As much as I enjoyed the ending, the lead up was a tad tedious. A messianic hero arising to save the kingdom in a time of need is an overused set up in the fantasy genre. Unfortunately, Lawhead does not subtly present the prophesy into the narrative. All the foreshadowing is incredibly heavy handed and some of the scenes are hard to read. The scenes detailing Quentin’s quest are borderline boring and overly angst driven. If Lawhead had cut down on Quentin’s philosophizing in nature, the pacing would have moved faster. Finally, Nin is supposed to be a nearly undefeatable warlord who has already crushed several nations. But Theido and company defeat rather easily. I would have appreciated a little more tension in the plot.
Of the three books, The Sword and the Flame is probably the most compelling. In this book, Quentin is a middle aged King on the brink of a crisis. He feels like he has already accomplished everything worth achieving in his life. Then his son is kidnapped and he finds himself exploring a darker part of his personality. If the previous two installments built up the messianic aspects of Quentin’s personality, The Sword and the Flame explores the more human side. Lawhead does an excellent job progressing Quentin from a heroic angst driven young man to a conflicted adult. Theido is still shortchanged in the characterization department, which still annoys me. What I appreciate about this installment is that the narrative fleshes out the consequences of some earlier decisions. However, the villain is still overwhelmingly underdeveloped. Parts of the trilogy suffer from the lack of a compelling drive behind the antagonists. Especially since the plot of this book is driven by revenge. Well the revenge only makes sense I it is well developed. Unfortunately, Lawhead chooses to focus on Quentin’s mental decline over the bad guy’s underlining ambition. This results in a slightly disjointed narrative that does not progress as quickly as needed. While I enjoy reading different character perspective, sometimes philosophy needs to be demoted in favor of action. Otherwise the story stagnates and needlessly drags. When Lawhead focuses on the action sequences, the narrative recaptures its magic and draws in the reader. The problem is that there are too many philosophizing scenes in between the action.
This is not an overwhelmingly complex trilogy. In fact, it is actually a quick read. As a result, some of the characters and their motivations are thinly defined. I find this lack of depth rather frustrating because I think the narrative is compelling. However, The Dragon King Trilogy is an excellent coming-of-age tale. Especially since there are no awkward/nauseating love triangles, overly sexualized teenagers, unbelievably beautiful heroines, and no mythical dormant powers ready to pop out when the narrative needs to progress. Instead, this is a rather simple tale about a humble boy who rises to become a heroic man. Parts of the trilogy is cheesy and simplistic, but Quentin is a relatable hero. Even though I dislike the prophesized savior aspect of the tale. Overall, this is a pretty well written fantasy adventure. It is not meant to be deeply philosophical or genre revolutionizing. If you want an uncomplicated but well-crafter narrative, this trilogy fits the bill. And I think this would make a compelling movie or mini-series. Just saying.