*Minor spoilers may follow.*
The inhabitants of Omehi who are known as the Chosen have been warring with the savage hedeni tribes for hundreds of years. The hedeni may have superior numbers but the Chosen have the Gifted. These are powerful female mages who can source power from the underworld Isihogo. The Gifted are a huge asset in battles. They can turn a warrior into an Ingonyama which is a giant, amazingly powerful protective being. The pinnacle of their powers, and the aspect that the hedeni fear the most is that when Gifted work together they can call a Dragon Guardian to aid them on the battlefield to bloody and devastating effect.
After an incredible prologue which is set 186-cycles prior, we spend The Rage of Dragons mostly following Tau’s third person perspective. Castes and birthright are hugely important in this novel and Tau is a higher common. He lives in a relatively small town and spends the majority of his days helping his father in his duties or training with the sword. His father was an Ihashe warrior and now helps keep the settlement secure and safe. Tau wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an Ihashe soldier too. These are the elite fighters from the lesser castes. He spends his days practicing with the second son of a petty noble house called Jabari. As a noble Jabari is bigger, stronger, faster, fitter and beats Tau the majority of the time. Jabari wishes to join the Indlovu which is the group for the most powerful noble caste warriors. Although best friends they are aware that their blood will lead them to walk different roads in the future even though the nobles, commoners, and the drudge are all on the same side. All seems content and life doesn’t seem too harsh. Tau even has a love interest in his village called Zuri. Things change dramatically but mostly for Tau the day that Jabari attends his warrior trials and that where the story really begins.
Tau was a standard and safe character at the beginning of the narrative but his development throughout is dramatic and very well done. He changes drastically when vengeance becomes his only real motive. Following his loss, taking part in his warrior trials, to his time in Scale Jayyed as an initiate Ihashe, seeing events from Tau’s perspective was addictive for me. He was headstrong, unyielding, sometimes made bad decisions and wasn’t always likable which are some of the qualities I look for in a protagonist.
“He made a pact with himself, a pact he swore on his father’s soul. If he were asked to run a thousand strides, he would run two thousand. If he were told to spar three rounds, he would spar six. And if he fought a match to surrender, the man who surrendered would not be him. He would fight until he won or he died. There would be, he swore, no days without difficulty.”
I’ve read many fantasy novels where sections take place at a warrior or magic educational establishment. This tale features some of what you’d expect in this sort of setting. Rivals, different factions, a team of varied individuals working together against the odds, camaraderie, interesting teachers/trainers, etc… The familiar elements incorporated, I think this is the most I have ever enjoyed reading a story that features a warrior school. That includes Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song which is probably the closest rival this story has. What made this exceed was the practice battles against other scales from the lesser castes and also from the noble castes. The hatred between the nobles and the lessers leads readers to realise that there is no such thing as a practice fight in this environment. These scenarios are exceptionally well crafted and gripping especially when Tau hones his fighting skills and other members of his team learn to work together expertly to overcome much adversity.
Winter has a deft talent for writing colourful, complex and memorable characters. My personal favourites were sword trainer Jayyed, love interest Zuri, hated rival Kellan, and all the members of Jayyed’s five. This African-influenced fantasy world was composed well without being too fruity or unnecessarily over detailed. This kept the focus on the action and The Rage of Dragons flows at a breakneck pace with only a few quieter, slower chapters here and there for readers to catch their breath, compose themselves, reflect on what has just happened and then breathe before going again. The Rage of Dragons features the battle scenarios as mentioned but also huge skirmishes and fights against the age-old enemy, the hedeni. Duels, political corruption, dragons and venturing to the underworld to fight demons are just a small amount of the ingredients which make The Rage of Dragons such a phenomenal debut. I’ll definitely see what Winter has in store for us in his next entry. The Rage of Dragons is an excellent high-octane thrill ride of a fantasy debut that I devoured in one day. Highly recommended. 9/10.