I’m not going to lie to you and say this book had me hooked from page one. It starts off fine; it’s interesting enough to keep reading with a good amount curiosity, but not “Oh my gosh! Who is this person?! I must know more about them ASAP!” But hey, that’s perfectly alright because it’s a story that steadily burrowed into my heart, so unassuming that it caught me off-guard when I realized I’d been thinking about it all day, at work, for the several days. Opportunity to read it became my main reason for anticipating breaks. I spent time mulling over characters, shipping them, daydreaming about them, grinning to myself over their interactions and reflecting on the various dynamics between them…
Friends recommended this book to me ages ago, and I only just remembered to read it last month. I’ve come to see the error of my procrastination. I’ve been missing out. Like I said before, the start isn’t anything to obsess over. It’s how I felt and what I read as I continued that separates this from other fantasy novels – and all novels in general.
The world building is fantastic. This is a rich world that boasts different cultures, various political views, races, social hierarchies, architecture, and resources. Every presented culture is distinct from the others, with its own similarities and differences in values, tradition, beliefs, and so on.
There are also different races inhabiting the world, with the pane (a race of horned giants with tusks protruding from their lower jaw) being the most prominent in the story so far. Human races come in a variation of skin tones that tend to originate from specific regions.
And yes, this world has dragons.
Dragonoak: The Complete History of Kastelir – by far – has the greatest rate of inclusion for underrepresented character types, particularly when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity. Numerous trans/agender/gender fluid characters are shown, and written with respectful “they” pronouns. Polyamorous characters are also around, with a polyamorous relationship shown in the sequels, according to the author. This is no monochromatic world, and it shows. Even the protagonist, Rowan, is homoromantic but leans towards the asexual side sometimes. Sexuality and gender are never questioned, but accepted as part of the character.
I also really appreciate the dynamics between characters and their different types of relationships. There are a lot of women in this book, and a lot of them aren’t exclusively heterosexual. Thankfully, there isn’t the problem of all-the-women-like-each-other-romantically, because Farren, well, isn’t an idiot. Some have romantic feelings for others, yes, but there are also sibling-like relationships, mother-daughter type relationships, and more. Character interactions and relationships are fascinating to read. As characters develop and grow closer together, their behavior shifts to reflect that. And this is written in a way that feels natural – not forced or rushed. Claire’s slow warming up to Rowan is noteworthy for Farren’s patience and ability to withhold premature bonding. In contrast, Rowan’s relationship with Ran (sorry, I don’t know how to put an accent on the “a”) becomes warm quite quickly and their dynamic is delightful.
Like I said earlier, things happen gradually in this book. Characters learn about themselves and each other over time, and through shared experiences. The stakes start off low because we’re only given Rowan’s perspective, but as things play out, she finds out more about the situation, the stakes rise, and so does the reader’s emotional investment. There are slower sections where Rowan basically waits around for everyone, but that’s not something I’d fault the writing for. Rather, it reflects how Rowan feels about what’s going on around her, and helps readers understand her boredom and feeling caged in. There are also times when your heart will ache for characters, and moments when you’ll giggle with them. And then there’s that chaotic, heart-wrenching ending.
So, the summarized version? Dragonoak is a well-written, accessible fantasy that has more representation than I’ve ever seen or read. From the characters, to the world they live in, to the plot around them, this book is memorable in the best ways. You just have to give it time to show you. It’s not perfect, but I can’t think of anything big enough to complain about, and the mountain of feels result in higher ratings from me.
Note: All art shown, including the book cover, is by skepticarcher on Tumblr.