The First Dragoneer is a brief induction into the world M.R. Mathias has created for his epic novels.
The reader is immediately dropped into the midst of a hunting trip – the last such to be enjoyed by childhood friends, Brendley and March. It’s an easy task for the reader: the dialogue is so natural and genuine, the descriptions succinct and yet hitting the mark with exactly the right amount of imagery that it almost reads itself. I started to enjoy the tale from the outset because of this deceptively simple writing style and because so much information (back-story, mise en scene, motivation) was established contextually and without lengthy exposition.
The narration blends seamlessly with the characters’ thoughts and feelings, which are never obtrusive. Mathias makes good use of his writer’s palette, taking from his toolbox just what he needs and no more.
There is a degree of head hopping but it’s well-controlled and there are only two main POVs so it never gets confusing. Sometimes, early on, I got a little confused with the characters. It was a little hard to tell them apart, but this ultimately emerged as a strength: Bren and March are joined at the hip and this is the story of their parting.
Editing is fair. There were one or two malapropisms, some missed apostrophes and some redundant adjectives that weakened otherwise strong lines, but these are few and far between. There were also some minor problems with word repetition which didn’t exactly leap off the page but would add polish if modified.
Generally Mathias writes fluid prose that the eye just skips over with ease. He has a knack for finding just the right word for the character and context and is never pretentious. He allows the reader’s imagination to form the images with just the right stimulus (“fist-sized spiders scurried from the noisy brightness...”). Rarely does Mathias overcook his adjectives. He also understands the importance of vernacular and specificity:
“and who is gonna race me to the short dock when the krill begin to spawn?”
Mathias writes about what he knows: the hunting scenes are easy and lucid, full of appropriate and uncontrived spiel. He’s also good at the small details the evoke all the senses - - the fiery brandy, the crisp air, the food:
“March handed Bren a pan full of scrambled grouse eggs he had collected and cooked earlier.”
Little things, little details that convey real people, people we can identify with. Lots of outdoor craft – torch making, fire building, construction of a litter (maybe “travois-like device” was a bit too specific but that’s a minor gripe).
Ordinary, believable people moving into uncharted waters. Chesterton would have loved this.
There’s also a nice use of mythology with the introduction of the white stag and the near “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” albatross moment. To his credit, Mathias doesn’t waste this either. He introduces these elements with purpose: the decision over killing or sparing the stag is a critical moment determining the outcome of the story and the vector of the novels that follow.
The action sequences in The First Dragoneer were a delight, full of human idiosyncrasies and those odd little accidents that real people are prone to under situations of duress.
It’s not just action and characterisation that Mathias is good at wither. There are some stunning descriptions of the landscape that pulled me right into his world:
"The rich, dark shades of the green tree tops flowed down the mountainside on their way out into the lower slopes of the valley. The trees thinned into large clumps, only to disappear completely in the valley floor. There, squares and long rectangles of brown, gold and russet took over. Some of the greener fields were speckled with the black and brown dots that were livestock, but most were empty of life save for the rows and rows of crops. The silvery-blue thread of the Prominence River wound its way through the pastures and crop-fields, splitting the valley into two misshape[n] halves."
The sense of place is further enhanced by the characters interacting with their environment – the hunting, the descent to the cavern, the practical solutions they need to come up with for their survival.
I thought the ending was a little hurried. There was a great description of the dragon’s approach but then all its knowledge is conveyed to March instantaneously, thus short-changing the reader. There’s also a very sharp change of gear at this stage – and perhaps there needs to be. We are about to be jolted from one world to the next. The familiar hunting grounds of Bren and March are about to give way to the world of the Dragoneers and their war against the coming Confliction.
The First Dragoneers is by no means perfect, but it’s a very strong introduction to the author’s oeuvre and a thoroughly enjoyable read. A bit of spit and polish and it’s as good as they get.
As to the little matter of rating, I don’t think a book has to be perfect to earn 5 stars (if that was the case I’d never dish any out). What it does have to do is engage me and make me want to read more. Mathias does this and does it well.
(review of free book)