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.
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.
Click here for my review of Community 17: A Dystopian Novella.
Photos courtesy James Cardona
A free copy of The Dragon’s Castle was provided in order to facilitate an honest review.