When Goodreads’ synopsis of this book pitched it as being “The Hobbit” meets “Guardians of the Galaxy” I immediately wanted to check it out, as that sounded like something that would be right up my alley! In a world ruled and governed by a wicked hierarchy of dragons known as the “Dragon Consortium”, a young man named Will’s farm is burned to the ground after he fails to pay his increased taxes which go towards the hoard of Mattrax: the dragon that controls his small village. After fleeing, he soon forms a small ragtag team of people who he meets in his travels, and fueled by a pissed-off desire for vengeance, he formulates a plan to steal Mattrax’s treasure right from under his nose. Joined by Lette: a young roguish woman with a pension for violence and cursing, Balur: a massive hammer wielding lizard-humanoid, Quirk: a university professor looking to expand her knowledge of dragons, and Ferkin: a raving drunk old man, Will sets out on his quest as he attempts to gain his riches without being roasted alive. I felt as though the novel’s overall lack of depth held back my enjoyment of it, but despite this Jon Hollins (the pen name of author Jonathan Wood) was still able to produce of fun, humorous and action filled story.
If you know me, then you know that I love fantasy heist stories… it’s one of my favorite sub-genres, and one of the biggest reasons I so often love said type of story is the characters. It’s always so much fun watching a group of (often) morally gray figures of varying skill sets come together to pull off an intricate heist while their personalities enjoyably bounce off of one-another, and that was the type of dynamic I was hoping to get with this novel. Each of the characters, and the team as a whole, did have their shining moments of fun and brilliance, but overall I unfortunately just didn’t care much for them. Will was fairly standard but somewhat bland as far as main heroes go, and while Lette could be occasionally annoying in how brash she was I appreciated her desire and inner conflict to be a better person and create a new life for herself. That being said, you can see the fairly generic romance between them coming the moment she hits the page before they even meet, and I know I’m not saying anything groundbreaking in stating this, but I am so sick of this pattern in fiction. You can make men and women have meaningful relationships without them having to be romantic. In fact, I found the characters outside of this main couple to be far more enjoyable! Balur and the genuine pleasure he took in violence was surprisingly likable, as well as the softer side he concealed under his literally hard exterior. Quirk was probably my favorite character, as she had the most compelling backstory and motivation to take part in this heist (at least in my opinion), and the more secretive elements of her character that were gradually revealed were very interesting. And Ferkin… well… he was Ferkin, and if nothing else he was always good for a laugh. Regardless of these strengths and weaknesses in the main cast, another issue I had with them was that I never really felt like they came together as a group in any meaningful way. None of them really had any specific skill sets imperative to their quest which brought them together, and I never really felt a genuine friendship form between the group as a whole. Perhaps there is something to be said about the merits of a heist adventure with that type of group dynamic, but for me I prefer for greater emotional bonds to be gradually formed among the main team over the course of the narrative. Without those types of relationships or compelling character motivations, it’s hard as a reader to become deeply invested. It’s a tricky balancing act to have a lovable group of assholes as your main characters, but when it’s done right MAN do I love it, and I can tell that’s what Hollins was going for. But here… unfortunately it fell a bit flat for me personally.
Just like with the characters, the overall story telling for me was a very mixed bag. At some points it felt incredibly predictable and other times it completely subverted my expectations! Unlike most novels I’ve read in this sub-genre, the initial heist happens very early in the narrative, and when it doesn’t go as expected the story takes many interesting twists and turns. As a result the pacing was fairly solid in its consistency, which I really appreciated. It made for a nice easy read, but at the same time perhaps it was too easy… by which I mean I was often left wanting more depth overall. I wanted to know more about the structuring of the Dragon Consortium, about the politics of this world, about the main characters’ backstories, etc. I know there is a sequel to this novel so its entirely possible that these elements are further explored in said book, but that doesn’t make the reading experience of this book any more immersive.
As far as the style of this novel’s writing is concerned, I actually think it was one of its greatest strengths. Nicholas Eames (author the “The Band” series) has sighted Hollins as one of his inspirations for his own writing, and I can definitely see the similarities as a big fan of Eames’ work. The way he fuses classic and contemporary styles is very entertaining when additionally combined with his crass and vulgar humor, resulting in some great and memorable lines (i.e. “Mattrax was an insolent son of an iguana slut lizard”). At times this style of humor felt a tad forced, and subsequently the jokes didn’t always land, but Hollins was often able to make up for this with great action and an overall very fun atmosphere!
I feel like this book had so much potential, which only made its shortcomings all the more disappointing to me. Elements of the novel’s characters, world-building and writing were very intriguing, but it just wasn’t able to deliver the whole package in the way I hoped that it would. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot to like about this book, but I’m just not sure if it gripped me enough to pick up the next installation in the series. If you are interested in a new funny and exciting heist, think about adding this to your TBR and see for yourself! 3/5