Review: The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan
THE WAKING FIRE is Book One of the Draconis Memoria, a new fantasy series from the author of the acclaimed Raven’s Shadow series. The setting owes a debt to steampunk but, unlike traditional steampunk, it is firmly grounded in the realities of the industrial age with ironclad warships, revolvers, repeating rifles and coal boilers prevailing over steampunk’s tongue-in-cheek clockwork. Colonialism and the British Empire in its heyday provide the factual model for the world-building, although in this world the existence of dragons – here referred to as “drakes” – makes for an intriguing twist.
Structurally, the novel is divided amongst three viewpoint characters: Clay, Lizanne and Hilemore. Ryan accordingly divides the larger story into three sub-genres – espionage, the lost-jungle expedition and the nautical adventure – and milks the full pulp mileage from each. The Waking Fire is a paean to the grand bygone days of exploration, adventure and scientific inquiry.
Clay, for example, accompanies a group of stalwart explorers heading into the deepest jungle to brave cannibals and fearsome beasts. Hilemore embarks on a high-seas adventure, battling pirates, enemy fleets and the fearsome blue drakes of the ocean. Meanwhile, Lizanne engages in high-society espionage as she searches for arcane scientific artefacts and, in later chapters, even gets to strut her femme fatale abilities in full-blown battlefield engagements.
Magic is evident but in a similar alchemical fashion as Snakewood. Rather than alchemical “brews”, however, individuals referred to as the Blood-blessed gain superhuman powers for short periods when imbibing refined drake’s blood. The drakes, and hence their blood, come in four different colours: Red, Green, Black, and Blue. The refined product from each species lends the user its own unique power: Red confers a pyromantic power, Green can enhance speed and health, Black enables telekinesis and Blue allows for psychic powers. Of course, to throw a spanner in the works, there is also rumoured to be a fabled White Drake, a mythical beast said to exist in the inner wilds of the savage continent of Arradsia.
Given that the novel is set in period of scientific discovery, the Blood-blessed provide a way to inject all the excitement of magic into the story without sacrificing the consistency of the world. For example, the Black can be used to divert artillery shells mid-flight, the Red can stoke a specialized blood-burner engine and the Green can provide last-minute resilience for an otherwise deadly fall. Combinations of the four drake bloods are also possible, allowing Lizanne, for example, to pinion enemy soldiers with her Black while burning them with her Red. The Blood-blessed’s powers make for some frenetic battle scenes that would do a superhero comic justice.
Since drake’s blood is so highly prized, it is no surprise that the hunting and trading of drakes forms a large part of the world-building. Two primary powers, the Corvantine Empire and the Ironship Trading Syndicate, are vying for dominance in this world ripe for exploit. The Corvantine and Syndicate forces are representative of the old-school dynastic empire and new corporate interests respectfully. At the novel’s outset, open war has yet to break out but cold-war tensions are high, and each side is manoeuvring for strategic advantage in trade and technology.
It is in this environment that Clay, a rough Blood-blessed character from the slums is commissioned or, more truthfully, press-ganged by Syndicate forces into assisting an excursion to find the fabled White Drake. But what he does not know is why the White Drake is so important or what power its refined blood might confer.
In a tangential mission, Syndicate agent Lizanne is attempting to acquire a scientific device that also has links to the location of the White Drake. To do so, she must go undercover within the mansion of Corvantine aristocrat Burgrave Artonin, where she finds herself becoming dangerously attached to the Major’s young daughter, Tekela. Protecting Lizanne’s secret identity may mean killing Tekela and that’s if Corvantine agents don’t discover Lizanne first.
Hilemore is a bit of rogue outsider in the affair. He has no Blood-blessed powers and spends much of the novel in naval engagements and negotiating with pirates at some remove from the key action of the White Drake plotline. However, the White Drake is a source of military conflict between the Corvantine Empire and the Syndicate and, being a Syndicate Second Lieutenant, Hilemore is embedded right in the middle of this larger conflict. It is through him and his ship, a vessel capable of phenomenal speed due to its blood-burning engine, that we witness several major engagements. And Hilemore is a dashing sea-dog, the sort of dapper yet practical chap who’d fight a duel for a lady’s honour, but only if there was a useful reason to win the lady over. He’s jolly good company on the foredeck and he’s always trying to extricate himself from some thoroughly disagreeable maritime disaster, so it never feels like the narrative is lagging when we’re in his viewpoint.
Notably, there are no Corvantines amongst the viewpoint characters. Those who are featured with any degree of characterisation are primarily the members of Burgrave Artonin’s household where Lizanne is embedded. Despite this, the conflict doesn’t feel simplified into “good versus evil” because the Syndicate is such an unscrupulous corporate enterprise. The Corvantine Empire does, however, at times feel like a somewhat nebulous, off-screen antagonist that doesn’t inspire any primal emotional response. Fortunately, there is another, more atavistically evil threat that links all the viewpoint characters.
It becomes clear that a threat greater than the conflicts of mere humans is looming, a threat intrinsically connected to the White Drake. It’s a rehash of the “old great evil awakening” but it’s a trick that still gets played for the simple reason that it works. The mystery and the suspense created definitely serves to raise anticipation for Book Two, The Legion of Flame. Although The Waking Fire avoids ending on a cliffhanger for individual viewpoint characters, the larger world is clearly on the precipice of a huge conflict when we leave the story.
Lastly, I should make it clear that The Waking Fire is not a grimdark novel. The narrative has more of a pulp-adventure feel than a gritty grimdark feel. In that respect, it is a fast read, action-packed and rife with peril, but the mood never becomes bleak and the characters are never without redemption. To elaborate on the target readership, I bought a copy for my brother, who hated Game of Thrones because he felt it was too dark. His verdict: he loved The Waking Fire. I, however, confess to enjoying my fantasy a touch grittier. So although The Waking Fire is undoubtedly a good book, it may not appeal to those after a darker read.