Dave Freer’s DRAGON’S RINGis a cracking good read that’s intricate, rousing, and often moving. It’s the story of Fionn the small black dragon-shapechanger, who’s also called Finn while in human-shape, and his apprentice, Meb (also called Scrap). Meb is a displaced human magician who shouldn’t ever have been brought to Tamarind, a world with more than its share of secrets, but somehow, as a baby, she was placed on Tamarind, then left to grow up believing herself to be a normal, human citizen of that world. How the two meet, interrelate, and then finally destroy (or save) Tamarind is the main upthrust of this book, but if you’re only reading it on one level, you’re missing the point.
Tamarind is a very odd place; the humans who live there have dragon overlords who charge outrageously high fees to their human tenants (who aren’t quite serfs, but close); some dragons treat their tenants better than others, and give them more freedom to pursue their lives due to asking for lesser amounts in taxes, while others are awful, treating their humans like lice — vermin that can be wiped out at need, then brought back in greater numbers later on.
Mind, Fionn is the oldest dragon on Tamarind, but there are other old dragons about here and there who’ve forgotten why they were made even if they remember how demeaning it was to be servants. This is the main reason why some of the dragons are far, far worse than others; in general, Fionn notwithstanding, the older the dragon, the worse he or she treats the humans who live in his/her demesne.
Fionn, alone among dragons on Tamarind, does not have a territory and does not have humans giving him tribute. He earns his money in other ways because he’s embraced his heritage as a shape-changer while other dragons refuse to use other shapes unless they’re literally at death’s door and it’s the only way out of a bad situation. Fionn’s hoard of gold is even in a different place altogether than any other hoard on Tamarind, partly because he remembers why Tamarind was made as an artificial construct, and partly because he enjoys confounding people and being different. And all of this — all — is to highlight the fact that Fionn not only relishes his differences, but remembers what he’s for — to re-balance this particular unstable world, this made world, this world, he has firmly come to believe, that no longer has a right to exist.
Fionn says all this at the regular dragon gatherings, called conclaves, too, but he’s not listened to, nor is he often respected (except for his wit; he has a sense of humor, which many of the other dragons lack). This is because the younger dragons lack his sense of purpose, while the older ones are just angry they were once used as servants by the First, those legendary beings whose descendants are the Alvar (think “Elves”), the humans, the Dvergar (think either “Dwarves” or “Gnomes” and you won’t be far off), the Merrow (merpeople), the Lyr (sprites), or the creatures of smokeless flame — this is one reason most of the elder dragons hate humans (and all the others) with the passion of a thousand suns, because they can’t get at the First (who are either long-dead or long-removed from Tamarind due to its oddities) and yet have to vent their rage somewhere.
And trust me on this one; dragons have a lot of rage, as we see more often than not, something Fionn can’t help but regret as he’s grown to like most of the other races quite well.
The story behind how Meb finally figures out Finn’s secret — that he’s also Fionn — is the main driver here, yet there’s so much else going on. What is up with Tamarind? Why is Finn/Fionn of the fervent belief that he cannot love, when it’s obvious that not only does he love (at least in the philios sense) many of the other races, he’s capable of great caring? And why is it that so few of the dragons on Tamarind realize that they are like Fionn at least as far as being able to deeply care about others, to the point that many have allowed their baser selves far too much free rein?
Fionn’s journey — from a well-traveled wanderer to someone who has found his place, be it ever so unusual, in the universe — is well worth watching. But so is Meb’s — she goes from apprentice-wanderer to full conspirator along with Finn/Fionn, and tests his mettle along with his resolve.
DRAGON’S RING is a highly original story of love, rage, redemption, self-sacrifice, learning amidst often-closed cultures, and so much more, and it’s well worth reading over and over again. It’s closest cognate, in some weird way, might be Jacqueline Carey’s duology “The Sundering” of BANEWREAKER and GODSLAYER; while those two aren’t close in their style, they do have a very unusual sense of morality that is deeply at the heart of the story and are both intricate stories that deserve to be read over and over again, being more appreciated each time.
Grade: A-plus. A masterpiece — so what are you waiting for? Go grab it today!
— Reviewed by Barb