The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable war for almost two hundred years. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.
Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war.
Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn’t get the chance.
Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him.
If you’ve heard a lot of hype surrounding this book, it’s for a good reason. The Rage of Dragons is the sort of book that pulls you in very quickly, and leaves a strong impression after you finish the final page. It’s the kind of epic fantasy that feels comfortable to fans of that particular genre, while also displaying an impressive amount of originality to make it stand out. There are demons, there are dragons, there is military drama, there are all the hallmarks of an epic fantasy classic, and yet it is also so unlike many epic fantasy novels I’ve read, in no small part because it is not set in a land broadly inspired by medieval Europe, and neither are its people. Instead we get something inspired by South Africa, which is far less common and worth paying attention to for its representation and creativity
It is, in short, very well worth the hype.
The Rage of Dragons is, first and foremost, a story of a man driven by the desire for revenge. Tau is from one of the lower castes of the Omehi people, limited in his ability to advance in life, but powerfully motivated to go as far as he can after the death of his father reroutes Tau’s plans for his life. Now he is driven to become the best fighter he can be, not to fight in his people’s unending war against the hedeni, but to get to a place where he can kill those who played a part in his father’s death. But, as in any good story, Tau’s journey is far from easy, and far from straightforward, and time and again Tau finds himself running into walls that block his goals or turn him aside to a new aim.
Put that way, the story might seem unfocused, but that’s far from the case. In many cases, Tau stays focused on his goal of revenge even after uncovering details that things are not always as they seem, that things are more complicated than he wants to believe in order to keep his goal in sight. Frankly, it was interesting to see a character bent on revenge to the point of blindness, to the point of damaging himself and refusing to be turned aside even when logically he should have been. Emotion rarely obeys logic, and Tau’s singular drive did not respond to anything until it became impossible to ignore.
It’s difficult to talk about The Rage of Dragons without mentioning the Omehi caste system, which, as caste systems do, affect so many aspects of every character’s life. Tau is Common, which isn’t the lowest caste but it’s also far from the highest, and as such, his life is very limited. He can (and did) gain some military training and status, but even that would only take him so far. So, a caste system with a limited degree of meritocracy, just enough to give people hope that life might improve but not so much that they will ever improve to the degree of a higher caste. People from the Noble caste, thanks to breeding, are taller and stronger than Lessers, giving them physical advantage in addition to social advantage. For Tau, his options in life are: become an Ihashe (a low-level soldier) through physical prowess, become front-line fodder in the war, or become a Drudge (essentially a slave).
It’s not surprising that Tau throws himself into becoming not only an Ihashe, but the strongest one he can be, training literally night and day to hone his martial abilities and make himself ready for the day when he challenges his father’s killers to the death.
There are plenty of characters in plenty of books who end up being the best of the best, the exceptions to all the rules, and so that’s why the story is about them. But more often than not, that skill is a natural talent, albeit enhanced by training. In many other books, a character like Tau would find himself suddenly presented with training that brings out hidden martial talent that existed within him all along, and that exceptional nature would be what saves him and propels him forward. Here, it’s just the opposite. Compared to the others he trains with, Tau is, at first, weaker and smaller than all of them, and to rise to their level, he has to put in extra hours of training to improve. But being as good as the others isn’t enough, and he knows it, so he puts in more hours, forgoing sleep, forgoing friendships, in the pursuit of power.
He ends up being able to dual-wield swords, and admittedly cool trick that I’ve seen before, but again, it usually gets presented as some natural talent. Tau finds he can wield two swords at once due to a lucky accident, and due to his dominant hand being injured during the early days of his training, forcing him to fight with his weaker hand and so in essence becoming ambidextrous. Nor is his progress unmarked by any detriments: Tau loses sleep, gets injured, fights demons and starts to see them everywhere even when they aren’t there. His drive has drawbacks, tangible ones, and to be honest, it was good to see. Sometimes stories can be remarkable for what they don’t do rather than what they do do, and this is one such case. It would have been easy to have Tau be naturally talented and to rise with effort, yes, but also without sacrifice. It was fantastic to not the see author fall into that trap, to give Tau more obstacles to overcome and actual difficulty overcoming them. It made him, however exceptional he turned out to be, very relatable, very real.
It’s worth mentioning the hedeni in this review, because I often feel awkward when an entire race of people are presented as “savages” and “the enemy.” Especially when we see almost nothing from the viewpoint of any of those people, and the vast majority from the people who invaded the hedeni’s lands and seek to eliminate them. While it becomes clearer toward the end of the book that the hedeni have a strong culture of their own and are not the slavering horde that the Omehi believe them to be, much of the book is written from the perspective that they are pretty much there to be an obstacle to the Omehi being secure in land that, frankly, they invaded and caused massive damage to. This is a perfect example of not just history being written by the victor, but of culture being defined largely by an “us vs them” mentality, with little to balance the perspective. It was reminiscent of old presentations of North America’s Indigenous people, seen as nothing but an uncivilized obstacle to European comfort and power, and while I don’t delude myself into thinking this mentality has only ever been part of White history, it still was uncomfortable to read.
I can understand it from a storytelling perspective. The Rage of Dragons was about Tau’s revenge, Tau’s loss, and not about culture clashes and erasure, though it did take on a little bit of that toward the book’s climax. But while I do understand the decision from the standpoint of a storyteller, I won’t pretend it didn’t make for some very awkward overtones at times.
Still, I cannot express properly just how much I enjoyed reading The Rage of Dragons. The world is so complete, so developed, that even though we really only see a very small part of it, it feels larger, it feels connected to what lies beyond the small section of land in which the book is set. Characters had their own unique voices, varied personalities, and even when I didn’t particularly like some of them, I was invested in what happened to them. The author, Evan Winter, has a wonderful talent for telling engrossing stories and for keeping readers hanging on every page, every word, with action and intrigue aplenty. I was truly impressed with this debut novel, and I’m very excited to see the story continue in later books, and to keep an eye on other things that the author may write in the future. I highly recommend The Rage of Dragons to those who love epic fantasy but who also crave something more unique in their reading.