Feel the Burn
I’ve been reading Aiken’s Dragon Kin series for ages now, and one of my favorite romances is What a Dragon Should Know, the third book. But for some reason I’m not sure of – too many characters, a more and more complex series plot, I don’t know what – as the series progresses, I find my interest waning. I had hopes for Feel the Burn, and overall it wasn’t bad, but it was lacking that certain something that had me loving the previous books.
Kachka Shestakova of the Black Bear Riders of the Midnight Mountains of Despair in the Far Reaches of the Steppes of the Outerplains – is displeased. And not because her full name takes a full breath to finish. She’s displeased because the people of the Southlands are spoiled and decadent and she has nothing to do but hunt. She and her sister Elina are Daughters of the Steppes, brought up as warrior women in a society that values only women (men are for procreation and taking out the trash, as we hear repeatedly), and in the Outerplains, life is hard and painful and the Daughters like it that way. Annwyl the Bloody, the Southlands queen, sends Kachka off on a mission to destroy a cult that’s ravaging temples across her lands, which first sends her back to her homelands to gather a war party (all misfits, much like herself), and then into the path of Gaius Lucius Domitus, Iron dragon and the one-eyed Rebel King.
Gaius is on a mission of his own, to destroy the rest of his extended family. After a lifetime of abuse from his father and other family members, he and his sister are running the Provinces. They still have enemies though, and Gaius is determined to keep his sister safe by destroying them all. His mission meets up with Kachka’s, and he decides to tag along with her group, both for the information and for the woman. Well, if he was being totally truthful with himself, it’s mostly for the woman.
Kachka is kinda fabulous, in her stark, barbarian sort of way. She certainly doesn’t curb her tongue, and has no problem letting those around her know her thoughts and feelings on basically any matter. Unlike her sister, the one who brought her to the South, Kachka is having a hard time in the Southern lands; all the people are too soft, and the “useless men” have positions of power, something unheard of by the Daughters of the Steppes. She calls my personal favorite, Gwenvael, “beautiful but useless dragon” instead of his name in conversation. She (and the others we meet from the Outerplains) are about as literal as they come, which makes for fun conversations.
And speaking of the others from the Outerplains, Kachka’s little band of fighters is pretty entertaining in general. Who can dislike Zoya Kolesova, the cheerful barbarian? Well, other than the others of the Steppes, that is. Apparently “cheer” is a bad word. I love that each character, like Zoya, has a full personality, and I can easily see any of them as the main character of a future book. Plus, each of the Daughters owns her sexuality, which is something I’ve been looking for in my romance novels.
Gaius makes for an interesting hero, if only because he is outside a lot of the action of the story. The reader jumps back and forth between Kachka, Gaius, and Annwyl for the first part of the book, and then Gaius becomes almost more of the classic “fool” character – he follows Kachka on her mission, as it is part of his own, and provides commentary and communication with the other dragons in the story. One thing I have always enjoyed is that Aiken doesn’t rely on classic romance characterizations based on gender. The individuals have strengths and weaknesses that have little to do with their genitalia.
And I love that basically everyone is a troll to their friends and family. How do you show love? By poking at those you love. And those you hate, really. Later on in the book, there’s a lovely feast scene where the Daughters remark in various ways that it seems more like a funeral. So they have one of their number sing the song of death, which is basically musical wailing, solo for the first time around, but then everyone sings it again, altogether. It’s brilliant, mainly because their host has no idea how to react. Love it.
Honestly, I really wanted to like Feel the Burn more than I did. The overarching series plot and the vast and varied cast of characters should be fascinating. I love fantasy and political intrigue and sarcasm, and each book in this series has those things in spades. At some point, though, everything became so complicated that, without reading the previous book immediately before, I was lost for a little while, and had a hard time getting into it. And for some reason, the books feel like they are getting progressively more violent, especially with the Daughters of the Steppes. It fits their culture (and it fits Annwyl the Mad Queen), but I still find it jarring.
For this particular book, the set-up drags on for a while and then it starts jumping around between the different main players, which is a bit of a peeve of mine. I find it disconcerting to spend a chapter on one character’s storyline, and then immediately jumping to the next. It’s unneccessary for most stories, this one included.
But basically, if you are invested in the series, go for it. If not, stick with the earliest books, and just re-read Dagmar and Gwenvael’s story in What a Dragon Should Know. If you’ve never read any in the series, go read about Dagmar. She really is the best.