Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The Completist: Duncan M. Hamilton's Dragonslayer Trilogy

I’ve decided to resurrect one of my old columns, at least for this particular post. The column in question: The Completist from the sadly closed SFSignal (still available via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine). 

As I said almost a decade ago: I’ve read a lot of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror over the years and my aim with this feature is to examine those SFFH series which have concluded. In short, all books of the series are available to be read in some format, electronic or print, but ideally both. 

In this edition of The Completist, I’m taking a look at Duncan M. Hamilton’s Dragonslayer trilogy. I read and reviewed the first book for SFFWorld back at the end of 2019, this post will incorporate some elements of that review with my thoughts on book 2, Knight of the Silver Circle and book 3, Servant of the Crown as well as the series as a whole.

Hamilton began the series with Dragonslayer focusing on the protagonist of Guillot [Gill], a disgraced knight brought back from anonymity for that “one last fight." Exiled from the main kingdom of Mirabaya to his familial lands of Villerauvais, Gill’s days are occupied with minor squabbles of his demesne, but mostly drinking wine. He is woken from self-pity when an agent of the Prince tells him of a disturbance in the kingdom, small villages are reporting very unsettling things. The Dragons have been gone for hundreds of years…to the point few believe they ever existed. That is until what amounts to a royal dig accidentally wakens the Dragon Alpheratz. 

Much like Dragons being forgotten and thought to be mythical, magic has similarly disappeared and become scorned, and forbidden and those suspected of practicing magic are eliminated. A young woman in Gill’s village – Solène – is suspected of being a witch and is summarily set for execution. That is, until Gill steps in and saves her life. Those two characters provide much of the point of view for the story, but the other primary POV would be that of the woken Dragon, Alpharatz. We get a few views into Alpharatz’s head which provides a more “truthful” context of Dragons' once high place in this world. The Dragon makes for a very interesting character and while he is not evil, Alpharatz is very much an antagonist for this story and to humanity as a whole. 

Gill fits the trope of the grizzled veteran reluctant to return to the fray. Gill’s fears, anger, and self-pity help to give him a realistic bent. His character arc from when he is introduced as a drunk to his waking from that haze is a strength of the novel. Solène follows an equally rewarding character arc, as she comes to realize what her burgeoning powers of magic can mean. Her full background is somewhat of a mystery, but we’re introduced to her as a village loner, but she is far from a country bumpkin. Her smarts show through in how she navigates the treacherous pathways of court and how the world at large views those who wield magic. 

Set as the human antagonist is Prince Bishop Amaury del Richeau, a man who has sidled himself up close to the royalty. Amaury also has a rather dotted history with Gill, the two were combatants in the past and Gill struck a very potent blow on Amaury. 

Dragonslayer lays the foundation for a fairly familiar fantasy world and plays with the most iconic of fantasy creatures in a fun, familiar, and refreshing fashion. The second installment, Knight of the Silver Circle picks up hot on the heels of the first volume. As it turns out, Alpheratz was not the only Dragon in the world, but his appearance has essentially changed the world. Prince Bishop Amaury uses the threat of Dragons as an opportunity to dig his fingers deeper into the power base. He manipulates the new King into shaping laws that fit his needs all while sending people to search for a magical, long-thought mythical cup that will confer Amaury with great, sorcerous powers. Amaury’s hatred for Gill becomes more of a driving force and along with his lust for power, manipulation of the King, and drive to “Make Mirabaya Great Again” fully carve out Amaury as the Big Bad of the trilogy. 

More importantly, it is revealed that Alpheratz was not the only Dragon in the world. We meet a new Dragon, Pharadon, who steps into a point of view role, which makes for a more interesting plotline for the Dragons in the novel and provides insight into the history of the creatures in this world. We also learn that Dragons are able to shape-shift into human form, which allows for the creature to interact with Gill and other humans. 

Meanwhile, Solène and Gill have gone their separate ways as she tries to gain a better understanding of her magic because it could be deadly if it goes unchecked. She reunites with an old friend after she leaves Gill the magic cup that provides him with the extra boost he needs when fighting Dragons. She returns to Amaury under the auspices if trying to help him find the cup (while also learning more about magic), but comes to realize what a despot he is. 

Amaury’s daughter, Ysabeau is his most trusted agent and provides additional insight into the villain and another layer of his despicableness. She’s an interesting character and isn’t quite the villain her father is, nor is she heroic, either. I feel like she could support a novel focusing on her exploits following the conclusion of the trilogy. 

A deepening of the characters, more angst around Gill and his guilt and pain around his wife and child’s death add depth to the reluctant hero. A deepening of what Dragons are and their relationship to the world at large was most welcome, too. There was a great big hint towards the end of the novel and I felt a nice bit of resonance with what we saw of Godzilla’s “lair” in Godzilla: King of Monsters. Although books 2 and 3 of this series sat on Mount ToBeRead for a couple of years, I was very, very happy that I had book 3, Servant of the Crown ready to read the minute I finished Knight of the Silver Circle

With the cliffhanger-ish ending of Knight of the Silver Circle, Hamilton picks up the events as if he was just turning the page to a new chapter with Servant of the Crown. With the King on the sidelines thanks to Amaury’s misunderstanding of the magic the cup conveys, Amaury is ruling as Regent of the kingdom with the King indisposed. As a result, Amaury is more unhinged. 

In the second book, Gill acquires a squire, a young man named Val and Hamilton shows some of the story from his point of view. He’s an admirable young man who only wants to train at the academy to follow Gil’s path to becoming a knight, or Banneret. We also get to see more of the King in the final volume, though more from Gill’s perspective. Gill, who was burned by the previous King (and father of the current King) has his own misgivings about whomever sits the throne. I enjoyed seeing Gill appreciate the kind of man the King had grown to be through the third installment. 

The emotional weight of the first two volumes comes to a largely satisfying conclusion in Servant of the Crown, even if there are a couple of points of execution that marred it only slightly. Gill’s journey was enjoyable, but I think the most rewarding was following Solène’s character arc through three volumes. I also appreciated that Hamilton is not afraid to kill his darlings, there isn’t as much “plot armor” as one might expect in these three books, not all the characters survive. Especially a few of the supporting characters Hamilton managed to imbue with real heart. 

Dragons are the creatures that most exemplifies the fantasy genre. Many writers have tackled the great winged beasts, shown various shades of what these kinds of creatures could be from monstrous to intelligent and everything in between. Duncan Hamilton follows very closely with perceived tradition of the genre as a whole and the iconic mascot of the genre and adds some spice of his own with the lore and history of the creatures in this world. 

Hamilton tells his story at a great pace that makes the three-hundred page installments for each volume in very consumable volumes. I managed to read the second two books in the series while sitting on the train for two days commuting into New York City, which made those train rides seem to go past rather quickly. Thankfully, those two days were a one time thing.

The Dragonslayer trilogy is a fun, entertaining character-driven story that tackles some interesting themes along the way. It is a throw-back series in some ways. By that I mean it is very much in the classic vein with knights, magic, and Dragons. Where much of fantasy in recent years has trended toward Grimdark and some moral ambiguity with its heroes/protagonists, Hamilton’s story (maybe with the exception of Ysabeau), clearly defines the heroes and villains. I found that somewhat refreshing. This was an extremely entertaining, gripping trilogy that is worth your time. The books are available in trade paperback and audible/audio. With the very consumable length of the first book (and all three, frankly), it is worth your time to give the first book, Dragonslayer your time.

No comments: