The Rage of Dragons is the debut novel by Evan Winter, one of the few African-American authors working in the epic fantasy genre. This 2019 work made quite a splash, and when I read it in February 2021 it had well over 16,000 ratings with a very impressive 4.37 average on Goodreads’ 5-point scale. I had made the decision to try and read as many Black authors as I could during Black History Month and selecting Winter’s well-regarded fantasy novel from my burgeoning Kindle TBR pile seemed like a no-brainer.
Most of my reading these days is in genre fiction, but typically I would say I spend more time reading crime fiction, then science fiction and rarely fantasy. However I was impressed very early on by Winter’s characterization of the protagonist of The Rage of Dragons, Tau Solarin. I was even more impressed by the world-building in the novel.
The story in The Rage of Dragons is set in a satisfyingly complex society which has two primary castes: Lessers and Nobles. The two are physically distinctive, although it is clear that both groups would be racialized as “Black” in our contemporary society. Almost all Nobles are taller, faster, stronger than most Lessers. Both are part of the Chosen people or Omehei. Omehei society appears to have a level of technological advancement equivalent to the Bronze Age on Earth. In addition to a society chock full of complicated moral questions Winters adds dragons and a spiritual realm that allows certain Gifted Omehei to practice powerful, specific magical effects such as Enraging (making someone physically bigger and stronger), Enervating (stripping someone of their will and ability to act on their own), Edifying (communicating information over long distances) and Entreating (taking over conscious control of another living thing’s body). Winter situates his story in a historical context where the Omehei have spent 200 “cycles” (presumably solar years) trying to keep control over land on the Xiddan Peninsula that they think they should get to keep because it’s where they landed after they were hunted and nearly exterminated in a land called Osonte located far across the sea by creatures they call The Cull. Omehei believe they were "Chosen" by the Goddess to survive the Cull and their faith in her is why some have been "gifted" with powers and why they survived the rough sea passage from Osonte and also believe they have a right to claim Xiddan as their own. Unfortunately, it was already occupied by another group of humans, who (rightly, IMO) view the Omehei as invaders and colonizers and have been fighting for generations to expel or exterminate the Omehei. The Omehei also seem to be able to convince dragons to fight on their side fairly regularly and this behavior is viewed as further evidence the Omehei are "chosen by the Goddess."
The Rage of Dragons is an intricate, multi-layered story with several fascinating creations combined together to produce a compelling setting for what is at its heart a fairly traditional plot ("Local boy makes good"). These layers include class (there’s a very explicit and strongly enforced caste system among the Omehei AND a Royal sovereign!); race (almost all the Omehei are described as having skins of various hues ranging from tan to pitch-black); religion (belief in a spiritual world called Isihogo, the realm of demons, as well as an omnipotent, omnipresent, invisible "Goddess."); magic (the previously mentioned Gifted abilities); and war (the Omehei are in a generations-long battle with the original inhabitants of the Xiddan peninsula whom they call “hedeni” who they think are over abundant, light-skinned heathens and savages).
The main character Tau is an 18-year-old Lesser whose best friend Jabari is a Petty Noble and Winter does an excellent job of depicting the unequal opportunities and futures Lessers and Nobles have in Omehei society. Through an unfortunate interaction with a less open-minded Noble than Jabari, Tau’s father is killed early in the book in order to assuage a Noble ego and Tau vows revenge on three specific Noblemen who he sees as ultimately responsible for his father’s thoughtless murder.
The primary animating force of Tau's actions in The Rage of Dragons is revenge against his “betters” and he sets off to prove that he will literally do whatever it takes, no matter how painful or difficult, in order to have an opportunity to strike back at the men who destroyed his family. This makes Tau a sympathetic but also problematic figure. There’s an entire arc of the story which is about how Tau becomes a great warrior, not through some innate or genetic or magical ability but through intense, obsessive hard work, day-in and day-out. This is a nice choice by the author, because although Winter is duplicating a common trope of epic fantasies (the downtrodden orphan who grows up to become more powerful than anyone or he could ever have dreamed) he also subverts the trope by making it clear Tau is NOT the biggest, smartest or “most special” character in the book. Tau makes mistakes and wrong choices, more than once, but these humanize him and greatly strengthened my interest and connection with the character.
I only have a few quibbles with The Rage of Dragons (obviously, since I gave it the highest possible rating of five out of five stars on Goodreads). First of these quibbles are the too-frequent, detailed descriptions of hand-to-hand combat and fight scenes. In some sense it follows because Tau is in military training for more than half the book, but I think the number of paragraphs describing precisely how, who and with what Tau is fighting could have been reduced by half (or more!) with very little reduction in my enjoyment of the book. My second quibble is with the ending and the author’s penchant of raising the stakes by literally killing off multiple major characters in the last 5% of the book; some of the characters killed had been around since the first 5% of the book. This is incredibly gutsy, I guess, and I understand the dilemma the author is in. If he puts all of the characters in peril (or at the very least the vast majority of the ones we care about) and never kills off any, then the peril isn’t real, and the reader may feel cheated. But if he kills off major characters that we have known for the vast majority of the book in a shocking denouement towards its conclusion then it feels overwhelming and the reader feels somewhat cheated for investing in certain relationships that had built up as the story progressed. Winter made the latter choice in The Rage of Dragons and it definitely increased the emotional wallop the book delivers, so maybe he made the "right" choice in this case. I’m not sure there really exists an optimal choice for an author here.
Overall, The Rage of Dragons is an incredibly well-written and powerful debut novel. As I said at the beginning, epic fantasy is not particularly one of my favorite genres but I was thoroughly entertained and entranced by this book and look forward to reading The Fires of Vengeance as soon as the price for the Kindle edition goes on sale!
Title: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning, #1).
Author: Evan Winter.
Length: 544 pages.
Date Published: July 16, 2019.
Date Read: February 16, 2021.
OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).