The Order of the Scales review

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Order of the Scales is Stephen Deas' last novel in his dragon trilogy, which is also called Memory of Flames (in the US at least). The book was released in May 2011 (in the UK, US should follow in February 2012); the series being completed with a novel released each year since 2009.  A follow-up to the series is being written (it should be out in March 2012) and is called The Black Mausoleum.
As the various factions fight for control of the Adamantine Palace, mankind's nemesis approaches. The realms dragons are awakening from their alchemical sedation and returning to their native fury. They can remember why they were created and they now know what mankind has done to them. And their revenge will be brutal. As hundreds of dragons threaten a fiery apocalypse only the Adamantine Guard stand between humanity and extinction. Can Prince Jehal fight off the people who want him dead and unite their armies in one final battle for survival?
Reading a book from a series that is coming to an end or close to, I expect some things to happen or at least I had time to envisage possible outcomes.  The result may not always match my expectations (in fact it almost never does) but that's for the better since I want to be surprised.  In that aspect, The Order of the Scales succeeded and failed.  There's no middle ground for me, some of it is amazing and some of it is somewhat disappointing. Hopefully, the good parts are more striking.

I felt that Deas' writing improved in his second Dragon novel, The King of the Crags. Generally speaking, the 'harsh and biting' prose he offered previously is still giving his narrative some edge, an enthralling quality. When a gruesome action takes place or when rough speeches need to find a voice, the author isn't beating around the bush. It's not gruesome or provocative, it's simply natural. Alongside the raging pace he has chosen for his story of apocalyptic proportions and considering a negative aspect I perceived in Crags, I have to make amends for The Order of the Scales.  The 'felt forced' descriptions of the surrounding countryside found in the previous book are now seamlessly integrated into the protagonists' ramblings.

In this last opus, we usually follow Snow, Kemir, Jehal, Vale, Meteroa and Jeiros and some other characters get a small PoV chapter. Judging by this list, the author granted us a gift by choosing the cast to put up front, those who I wanted to see fighting to the end. On the downside, one of the problems that was crippling The Adamantine Palace to some degree has resurfaced.  Overall, the sequence of PoV doesn't feel right. I think that the problem has something to do with timing.  The author tried to direct the storylines toward some key moments where characters collide but the result is not effective. Kemir can get too much chapters in a row, breaking the pace, while Jehal is completely forgotten. However, when he is present, this 'new' speaker of the realms viciously charismatic personality (composition wise) outshines his peers.

Another drawback of this is the forsaking of some characters when the culmination of the tale begins. Snow is given merely some glimpses but mostly, I was dismayed, even dumbfounded to read (or not) about the death of one the main protagonists.  Not because he actually dies, but because a significant part of his agonizing trip is narrated in detail and the crucial moments of his death are told almost in retrospective and from somewhat too far away in term of perspective.

The final chapters however are bliss. In the interview I did with the author, he mentioned this about his motivations for writing about dragons :
[...] I think the story is very much about the impact that dragons have on the people around them, although perhaps not in the most obvious ways. Yes, they can burn cities and eat villages and still be hungry, but I'm thinking more about what it's like to live in a world where you have these monsters at your beck and call – and to always know they're only a few un-drugged weeks away from razing your entire world to the ground.
Taking that into account, I would have to admit the achievement is completed. The story itself has much more to do about the dragon factor than the political warfare, but only so in the fact that the humans are now living the consequences of the kings and queens pitiful scheming by facing the dragons they cannot control anymore. Things are not completely unbalanced though, some artefacts from the fabled tamers of the dragons are still around to be found and blood mages and elemental men are roaming. The fight is not over.

That being said, the heart of the story for the players in this game of ruse and machination resides in the individuals themselves.  A tale about dragons breaking the world wouldn't be captivating without the witnesses to reveal  the sheer magnitude of the cataclysm on their life. I would not have feared for The Night Watchman or the sell-sword life if my interest in them hadn't been appropriately built. Guessing who will stay alive in the end makes the saga worthwhile. Moreover, a battle with several hundred dragons can only be cool, no?

The epigraphs are back, though not at the start of every chapter but every section.  They give us details about key persona of the world. Nice touch. The world by the way is meticulously expanded.  The author  actually created a strong groundwork for the books to come. History doesn't feel hollow.

In conclusion, was the dragon themed apocalyptic fiction set on a tableau of power struggle a good bet for Stephen Deas? Yes it was.  Even though the last novel had some dichotomy in term of effective structure, the characters, both dragons and humans, redeemed the slight missteps. I'm glad to have picked it up and I think you should give it a try.

Technically, the Gollancz UK cover and the previous installments make a great looking trilogy on a shelve. The map of the Dragon Realms is still present and still pointing East... weird but nice to have. The paperback edition of the book stands at 340 pages.

The Order of the Scales review score :

Characterization............. 8 /10
World building............... 8 / 10
Magic system................. 7.5 / 10
Story.............................. 7.5 / 10
Writing...........................  7.5 / 10

Overall (not an average) 8 / 10



Joshua Lowe said...

I felt the same about the death of that key character ... while it was an interesting and almost unique way to approach it, it was almost inappropriate in how blase it was.

While deaths are dramatic and exciting I felt far too many characters were killed off with each book. Shezira was my favourite character and alas she didn't last very long at all!

Stephen Deas said...

Thank you for a thoughtful and very gratifying review. Both my editor and I knew that *that* death would raise an eyebrow or two.

Phil said...

Stephen : What made you decide to do it that way? I know it can be kind of hard to explain without spoiling :)

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