Book Review: The Dragon’s Castle

The Dragon’s Castle (Book II in The Apprentice series)
by James Cardona

I recall being surprised as a teenager that books about Merlin qualified as fantasy; I had grown accustomed to perceiving that genre as stocked with dei ex machina and endless casts of characters I couldn’t keep track of. Certainly, I did concede that perhaps I just wasn’t good with all those relationships, but it remained true I simply didn’t wish to trail after an endless parade of people in each book. As a result, I’ve been rather uninterested in fantasy for a number of years.

Lately I’ve been having a new look at the genre and The Dragon’s Castle, second of two James Cardona  novels I’ve now read, has gone a long way in persuading me that I might have been missing out. The novel features four, perhaps more modern, wizards: Nes’egrinon and his apprentice Bel, who are drawn to the fortress city of Sha’mont as war looms, and Shireen under the watch of her mentor, Meetta.

When Bel and Shireen come face to face, the memories of their prior history pick at scars of the past and a forced split, owing to the regulations prohibiting romantic relationships amongst those who choose the wizarding way. This inner conflict occurs alongside the threatened invasion of Sha’mont by its king’s cousin, Seol, who rules half of the divided kingdom their grandfather had bequeathed separately to his two sons, Seol and Thrashel’s fathers. As with any kingdom, jealousies and ambition hold sway; as things heat up, the problem the wizards encounter is discerning exactly who holds these emotions, and how they wield their power.

One marvelous difference in Cardona’s tale is that it is not populated by so many people who appear randomly but bear also the requirement of knowing reams of prior history in order to understand their roles. To be sure, there are many people within, but the author keeps it straightforward and doesn’t assign greater importance to anyone who doesn’t fully make himself known. Moreover, he provides a character listing, divided into magical and non-magical, with simplified descriptions of the role each person plays. In my own reading I almost never had to refer to it, given that Cardona weaves what backstories we need so seamlessly into his narrative, readers are able to do what they are meant to: sit back and enjoy the story.

And enjoy it I did. Cardona’s style is what I might call “spare, with details.” One look at the book—nearly 600 pages—may well cause balking at use of the word “spare,” but I assure, you’ll be glad to hold such heft in your hands, knowing you still have so much addicting read ahead. The narrative has plenty of detail, but keeps the plot moving forward and doesn’t get hung up on a move here or a contemplation there, largely because the story is so skillfully written with both openness and mystery. The revelation of one detail comes with clues but stays concealed for a reason. Simultaneously we become involved with other scenes so thrilling and some potentially deadly the flow of adrenaline becomes a rush, while we still care for the characters involved.

A young adult novel, The Dragon’s Castle has its fair share of violence, though not gratuitous and it is on par with that of many other YA novels. Moreover, Cardona’s characters address the manner in which war mangles and destroys the lives of people caught in the middle, and they thoughtfully contemplate their own decisions, before and after choices are made. The complexity of the plot as well as how the author moves us through it treats young adults as competent readers, with a perfect balance of reader- and writer-friendly language also suitable for adults.

While much of the language is pragmatic and to the point, Cardona’s narrative is at times laced with graceful views to the world around the wizards, typically woven smoothly into a small passage that provides an abundance of detail.

Although they mostly rode in the shade as the trees on either side of the path held hands overhead and provided much cover, yet it was steamy and humid in the forest. They did not press their horses but let them walk at their own pace.

Whether a more sedate scene such as referenced above, or one of action-filled episodes, the author brings readers into the moment and tension builds within as we read along, urging and championing Bel as situations flare up, secrets are revealed and the cast searches for victory without the total destruction of all they and others hold dear. Moreover, Cardona skillfully constructs a fantasy that nevertheless reflects realities of our own world, romance, difficult decisions, loss and interpersonal communication playing many of the same roles young readers themselves are likely to encounter as they mature.

Though The Dragon’s Castle is second in its series, it reads exceedingly well as a standalone novel, and I highly recommend it not only for an audience already keen on fantasy, but also for those seeking a great new read. Equipped with steady pacing and fantastic plot, constructed with technical expertise and care for humanity, this is a novel that will draw readers into a world brought to life so engagingly they won’t want to put it down.

About the author …

James Cardona was born in Lorain, Ohio, and received his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Delaware with a minor in Religious Studies. He also studied briefly at Penn State University. He spent six years in the U.S. Navy and served during the first Gulf War. He has worked in factories and food service, as an electrician, a teacher, supervisor and engineer. But like many creatives, his heart beats most strongly when it is full of the magic of building something new. Besides writing, he can be found drawing, painting, writing computer code, tinkering with electronics and building robots. Prior to his knees turning creaky he was an avid runner, completing about fifty or so races at the half marathon distance or greater.

EM3 James Cardona

His debut novel was Gabriella and Dr. Duggan’s Dimensional Transport Machine, the first book in the NuGen series. In 2013, he wrote the children’s science fiction-holiday book Santa Claus vs. The Aliens, followed by first in The Apprentice fantasy series, Under the Shadow of Darkness. In 2015, he penned three new books: Gabriella and the Curse of the Black Spot, second in the NuGen series and The Dragon’s Castle, second in The Apprentice series. Finally, in 2015 he wrote something completely different, Community 17, a whirlwind, dystopian science-fiction adventure. In 2016, James released Dragon Hunters, a science fiction-fantasy mashup of a story, and The Night Wolf, a prelude tale set in the world of the apprentice series.

The Worthy Apprentice is now available and he is currently working on Into Darkness, which are parts three and four of The Apprentice series, respectively. He is also writing something fresh and new, a science fiction book tentatively titled Rebirth.

To learn much more about the multi-award winning author James Cardona, including more biographical information and history, see his fun, informative and intriguing website. You can also follow him at Goodreads and find his books at Amazon and Amazon UK.

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Click here for my review of Community 17: A Dystopian Novella.

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Photos courtesy James Cardona

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A free copy of The Dragon’s Castle was provided in order to facilitate an honest review.

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950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: The Price of Love and Loyalty (Annie Whitehead)

Having previously looked backward into history as part of our examination of 1066, multiple award-winning author Annie Whitehead now brings us into even closer focus as we seek to make sense of this Conquest and all it has wrought. In so doing, we find we are not the only ones weighing the flood of events, actions, loyalties, what we say and what we do not. Could something have changed this deluge, could we have prevented it? Might we have escaped paying a price while remaining true? Or was it fated to happen, that we be swept up and carried along in meandering history, so like the wildest river Alvar speaks of with King Edgar?

The “thin place” author Annie Whitehead walks, where worlds old and new rub shoulders, and opportunities may arise to cross paths with those who came before …. (click image)

If we were to spy upon King Edgar, look at him from a (very) long-distance viewpoint, we would notice that, even compared to his contemporaries, he is short of stature. Perhaps his reputation is a little unremarkable, too. In a list of kings which featured Alfred the Great and Aethelred the Unready, Athelstan, he would barely stand out.

Yet in many ways, he was the most successful king of the tenth century. Respected, loved, he never had to fight, not on the battlefield, anyway. He and his brother were orphaned at a very young age, when their father the king died and was succeeded by his brother, who then died young, and childless. The teenage boys grew up separately. One of them, the eldest, was profligate, and louche, and was deeply unpopular. The other was Edgar, who grew up in the house of the powerful earl of East Anglia, where he developed ambition, and learned the art of politics. He saw how to harness the power and strength of other men, and he decided he wanted a kingdom for himself.

And since we’re having a peek, let me introduce Alvar (Old English name ‘Aelfhere’). He was Edgar’s right-hand man, helping him to secure a throne, and, much later, helping his son to secure one, too. He and his king are thinking about the years they spent together, when Alvar was earl of the powerful erstwhile kingdom of Mercia, dependent on Edgar for his position, while Edgar was dependent on the loyalty of Alvar, and the folk who lived on his lands.

Edgar: You broke an oath to serve me.

King Edgar the Peaceful, a contemporary portrayal in the New Minster Charter. via Wikimedia Commons

Alvar: I did. And it has been a cross to bear. But I saw a strength in you that I had not seen in your elder brother, whom I had sworn to serve. Some said his morals were lax, but my lord, I could say the same about yours. He was a weak man, and although it wasn’t fair what they did to him, it’s true that he was not fit to rule. He tried to buy the nobles, by giving them land. You seemed to understand what was required of a king. You respected the people you sought to rule. That was important to me.

Edgar: Ah yes, the Mercians. A proud people.

Alvar: Rightly so. Look what we achieved…

Edgar: Let me stop you before you give me a history lesson. You begin to sound like your faithful man, Helmstan. Always talking about Mercian independence…

Alvar: But you recognised it as fact.

Edgar: I did. I was nothing if not prudent. The Mercians and the Northumbrians were mainly of Danish stock by the time I came to the throne and I would have been mad not to acknowledge that. I knew I had to win their support against my brother, and I had to repay the debt. My policy was to keep everyone happy, with no reason to rebel. It worked. You all loved me.

Alvar: We did. We didn’t love each other though, that was the problem. We, the lords, and your bishops, well, let’s say we found ourselves with different ambitions.

Edgar: I held you all together, didn’t I?  Between us all, look how we even managed to arrange that all the kings of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man bowed down to me. Now that was a team effort. I even ignored the rumours about you and my wife…

Alvar: There was only ever one person who believed those rumours, and she should have looked at the evidence.

Edgar: When you say ‘she’, do you mean my wife, or Helmstan’s wife?

Alvar: You knew? Please say you never told him. I was never disloyal. I kept it secret, or so I thought.

Upper Slaughter in Gloucestershire, where Alvar had his main residence. Courtesy Charlesdrakew via Wikimedia Commons

Edgar: You were never disloyal to anyone, and that was your failing, really. You served me and mine well and faithfully. I know how much you sacrificed to help me take the throne, to help me keep it, and I know how hard you fought for my son.

Alvar: There was nigh-on full scale civil war, you know? At first, I was merely fighting for your son, as rightful heir, and then the tide of Mercian resistance seemed to sweep me along. It carried me to some dark places. Things were done…

Edgar: But even if they were done in your name, they were not done by you. Some of your enemies could have said the same thing, could they not?

Alvar: Ah, now here is where I must beg to differ. I did all I could to prevent what happened. Had I arrived just a few minutes sooner, I could have averted a killing. Dunstan, on the other hand…

Edgar: Shall we speak of him with full honour, and accord him his title of Archbishop of Canterbury?

Alvar: If you insist. The archbishop knew of many things, some done in his name, some done for his cause, about which he should not have kept silent.

Edgar: Hmm. Perhaps you are right. So how would you sum up our story?

Alvar: It is a story of kings, murdered. It is a tale of Mercia – a once proud kingdom, with nationalist feeling still running high. It is a love story, and love, as we know, never takes the straight course but meanders like the wildest river. The key word of this tale is loyalty. We are all bound by it, we all makes mistakes because of it. Some of us die for it…

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Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s (HNS) Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion and Chill With a Book Award.

Her newest release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Æthelred the Unready. Alvar the Kingmaker is also a recipient of the B.R.A.G. Medallion.

She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog.

Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066: Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017. She lives in the English Lake District with her husband and has three grown-up ‘children’.

You can learn more about and follow author Annie Whitehead and her work at her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook and her Amazon author page. Click titles to purchase To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker and 1066: Turned Upside Down.

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For links to previous entries in our “950: 1066 Remembered” series, including reviews for To Be A  Queen and Alvar the Kingmaker, click here.

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“Thin place” photo courtesy Annie Whitehead.