Dragon Bound (A Novel of the Elder Races)
by Thea Harrison
4 spangles out of five
Contemporary fantasy, though some blurbs call it urban fantasy.
This book won the 2012 RITA (Romance Writers of America's highest award) for Best Paranormal Romance. I can see where it would get high scores. The writing is often lush, the action scenes jumping with swash. Its voice is light since its heroine is not very serious. Well, some of the time she isn't.
The cast is filled with brooding alpha males who are also shape-changers—Wyr—in that they can change into a dragon, griffin, bunny rabbit, what have you. Everyone has their own specialty and will likely get their own volume in the series. These people have lived openly (well, they're known) alongside mere humans for a few centuries now. There's even been some interbreeding, which is how we wind up with Our Heroine, Pia, who is half-human and half-Wyr, though she doesn't know what kind of Wyr she is. (Thanks to a conveniently close-mouthed mother who is now conveniently dead. Or dead-ish.)
I'm not a huge fan of these kind of shape-changers, be they werewolves or gargoyles. I rather suspect that if I'd grown up with the cartoon Gargoyles, I might be. Shape-changing gives a hero an excuse to be all growly and fiercely protective of his mate in an un-PC way, so it allows the romance genre the chance to have a 100%, unrepentant alpha male as a hero.
The book gives us a good bit of world-building for the magical elements and sort of how the Wyr & co. came to be (Our Hero's origin is very nicely presented, to the point where at times though he was portrayed as being the Biggest, Baddest Guy Around I wondered why he wasn't, well, MORE. He should be a god.), but never explains to my satisfaction how everything fits into modern society to the point where there's a readily-recognizable modern human society still extant. I'd have thought such would have skewed things radically and the two societies would be hopelessly intertwined. The Wyr still have their secrets but Our Hero Dragos, emperor of the Wyr (as opposed to the Dark Elves, the other Elves, and I forget what other enclaves), keeps his huge fortress smack in the middle of New York City with little to no effect on the human community that surrounds him. (Until he roars one day and causes all kinds of havoc.)
Our Heroine, Pia, is a frightened mouse of a (half-Wyr) woman... unless she's a spunky daredevil... unless she's a passive possession of a dragon... unless she's the most skilled and deadly woman on the planet. I wanted a character whom I would recognize throughout the book, even as she grew into her character arc. Instead I got up and down moods and abilities that let the plot determine them, instead of the other way around. She didn't grow as much as fell into her fate.
I was surprised how much the beginning of the book really grabbed me and kept me reading. I wasn't expecting such a friendly author's voice, reflecting the young, modern heroine. (An excerpt of the next novel shows the same voice at work there.) Eagerly each night I returned to it—until the Saggy Middle came into view. There we had multiple info dumps (okay, it's the first volume of a series and things need to be established, but don't we have time to dump info more subtly?), description of how ritzy and über-cool everything was, and the heroine truly went into schizo mode, embroidered with the old "this heroine is the most beautiful, daintiest, most deadly, most desirable, most remarkable person on the planet and oh, how all the men now lust after her though she never had that problem before" meme.
Most horribly of all, I could see echoes of two of my own books in all the Mary Sue-ishness. Ack! Death to Mary Sue. Kill! Kill! Luckily, one of those books is still in wip form and can be corrected toot sweet! (I do hope I toned down the other one before publication.)
There was also a recurring prose problem: I often had to reread to figure out who was doing what to whom. Antecedents and references were iffy in all too many places. Where was the editor?
But to me the book also brought out why I often dislike romances: The romance is all they've got to offer the reader. Even then, it usually goes only skin-deep. Here our hero loves our heroine because she's a change of pace, but also because there's just something about her (what?) that calls to him, and she's great in bed. Our heroine loves our hero because he's gorgeous, fabulously rich and powerful, because there's just something about him (what?) that calls to her, and he's great in bed.
But shouldn't romance go deeper than that? Shouldn't the couple share a way of looking at the world? Attitudes? Customs? A love of scrapbooking? Something that will keep them together for all eternity after the looks and sexual prowess fade or grow too familiar?
Oh, I'm not just talking this book now. I'm talking about one hell of a lot of romances, which is why instead I write books "with Strong Romantic Elements" (that's an official sub-genre, though the RWA has now turned up its official legal nose at it), and sometimes they aren't even that strong. Okay, my historical (Burgundy and Lies) was the exception, but even then the couple shared something deeper than just lust for looks.
And yet I love an inordinate number of Regency romances. There you often find just the romance, and usually a desperate one at that (women had to get married for security since they had practically zero legal status), but it's all liberally peppered with a struggle against society's rules, and the approach between the couple in question is often humorous, with clever, entertaining dialogue. Even so, when I read a Regency in which something ELSE is at stake—like perhaps the heroine is secretly a writer of a gossip column in order to earn money to keep herself and her orphaned brothers alive—a thrill runs through me and I settle back expecting a story I'll remember long afterward.
But this review is about this particular book, not romances in general. Definitely give it a try, if you're into romance and dragons in a modern setting. Much of it will capture your attention, though I don't think you'll find the rather cliché characters memorable after you close the book. They're fun for what they are. Enjoy the action and don't think too hard about logical explanations. Dragon Bound would make a very pleasurable vacation read.