The following review originally appeared at Fantasy-Faction.com.
In the first book of this new series, Ryan introduces readers to a fascinating world where nations have been replaced by companies, and the most precious resource available is the blood of a drake, which can be used by Blood-burners to fuel their magic. Similar to the way that different metals provided different skills in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn novels, the blood of different-colored drakes provide Blood-burners different powers, and Madame Bondersil with the Ironship Trading Syndicate believes she knows what the blood of the fabled, near-mythical white drake can do – allow those who use it to glimpse into the future.
For Bondersil, the white drake represents the opportunity to turn the tide in a world where drakes are becoming more difficult to obtain, and those raised in captivity continue to provide weaker and weaker “product.” For the prospect of discovering the white drake and obtaining the power to see into the future, Madame Bondersil is willing to risk the lives of her most trusted agents to give the Ironship Trading Syndicate – and herself – the opportunity at untold riches.
The Waking Fire follows three compelling characters pulled into Bondersil’s quest – Lizanne Lethridge, a Blood-blessed spy for the Ironship Trading Syndicate; Claydon Torcreek, an unregistered Blood-blessed and thief living in the Carvenport slums; and Hilemore, a lieutenant on an Ironship Trading Syndicate ship.
As the story builds to its climax, Lethridge and Torcreek take center stage, but all three characters are well-rounded and engaging, and Ryan pulls off the difficult challenge of keeping the reader interested in the challenges faced by all his point-of-view characters, even as their personalities and stories vary. Perhaps my favorite of the three was Claydon, a character who touches on a number of well-established tropes even as Ryan adds his own unique touch. A thief who has managed to keep his blood-burning abilities a secret, Claydon’s story begins in the slums of Carvenport, where he runs afoul of the local criminal kingpin before being arrested.
Aware of Claydon’s abilities, Bondersil agrees to release him into the custody of his uncle, Braddon Torcreek, and the Longrifle Independent Contractor Company on their quest to find the white drake. As they dive deeper into the heart of drake country, Claydon begins to build a bond with his uncle and the rest of his company, even as he slowly begins to fear that the white drake may not be the salvation everyone believes.
Lethridge, meanwhile, enters enemy territory. Undercover as a maid, she seeks clues regarding the whereabouts of the white drake – and the last company that went in search of the creature. Along the way, she forms a bond with two unlikely allies, Tekela Artonin, the daughter of a Corvantine scholar and nobleman, and Arberus, a Corvantine cavalry officer and major in the Imperial Dragoons. With the help of the Ironship Trading Syndicate’s chief technologist, she proves a key player in unearthing a traitor in the Syndicate’s midst and defending the city of Carvenport from a challenge it has never faced before.
While Claydon and Lethridge are working together toward the same goal, Hilemore’s plot takes a divergent path. Newly assigned to the Viable Opportunity, Hilemore finds himself reporting to the eccentric Captain Trumane and beginning a mission to attack the Hive, a pirate community that the Syndicate has finally decided to eliminate. But plans change when war breaks out with the Corvantines, and the Viable Opportunity finds itself with enemies on all sides.
While the book’s opening pages are not dull by any means, it takes a while for things to really ramp up, as Ryan must introduce readers to his three point-of-view characters and familiarize them with the world he has created, political intricacies and all. But once the plot begins to gain momentum, the action gets fast and furious and the book’s conclusion includes a swift succession of plot twists and surprises. Ryan fully demonstrates his writing chops here, balancing his three protagonists (though out of necessity, Hilemore basically disappears for the final quarter of the book) while keeping the action at a steady pace without any dull moments. It’s a long book, estimated at 592 pages by the publisher, but Ryan makes every word count.
Readers who loved Ryan’s debut novel, Blood Song, should be aware that this is an entirely different type of book, distributing the story between three third-person protagonists rather than focusing on a single coming-of-age story. Alternatively, for those frustrated by the final two Raven’s Shadow novels, Tower Lord and Queen of Fire, this new series is worth giving a chance.
Ryan has introduced readers to a fascinating world packed with dragons, pirates, machine guns, political machinations and an interesting magic system to boot. It’s a novel far different from what Ryan has produced before, and it will be fascinating to see where he takes this story in the installments to come.