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Once There Were Dragons by Ken Coomes

four stars

dragonsThe first book in one of two parallel trilogies, Once There Were Dragons is a solid fantasy epic from novelist Ken Coomes. The action is set on a planet called Arthe, a world that was once teeming with magical properties and fire-breathing dragons, but had been visited by some race of interplanetary visitors who used their own technologies to lock away the mythical beasts and magical powers before departing. However, these “New Gods” also left a portal on each of Arthe’s principal lands, allowing for instantaneous travel between countries in compensation. In the present day, many decades later, the actions of the New Gods are the foodstuff of myths, and the portals have fallen out of use. As the foreign power that holds the barriers in place and governs the portals now begins to degrade, a deadly species of bellicose arachnidan humanoid begins to invade the lands of Arthe through these gateways. Independently at first, various rag-tag teams of adventurers undertake the mission of collecting various keys from across their world that can be used to lock the portals and save Arthe from destruction.

The brilliance of the novel is belied by its unassuming title; from the onset, the reader is warmly invited to a book that is fun, engaging, and intelligent. The action is good and the thrills genuine – for the most part, the book succeeds where so many others fall sadly short in the very difficult task of describing conflict and battle, and rendering these interesting. The world of OTWD is rich with imagery and culture, history and tradition – across the well-balanced story arcs of the novel’s motley lead characters, we are delighted to encounter different cultures and a generosity of perspectives that interact with rich and believable dynamics. There is a lot of fun play on recognizable things from our own world, although that occasionally doesn’t go far enough: the fantasy world could sometimes could feel more inspired – the parallels between life on Arthe and our own world can on rare occasion feel trite and bland. The groan-worthy moments of stilted cheese are few and far between – overall, OTWD is as clever and witty as it is fun: the novel is littered with thought-provoking, pop-folk wisdom and moments of pensiveness and poignancy the call on us to reflect and sympathize with the characters.

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