E. E. Knight returns with Novice Dragoneer, which promises to be the beginning of a rich fantasy series. We first meet Ileth on the doorstop of the Serpentine Academy, where people train to become the companions of dragons. She’s arrived just moments after the gate was barred, but before the end of the day when anyone can apply to the academy. Due to a childhood interaction with a dragoneer, Ileth has been working toward admission to the Serpentine for years, going so far as to run away from her precarious situation in the north. She has nowhere to return to; she has bet everything on admission. And they still don’t let her in. She waits for long days on that doorstop, watching with anticipation as those better connected and more noble than she pass through the gate. At long last, and due to her indefatigable mettle, she’s admitted into the Serpentine Academy.
The focus of the novel is tight on Ileth and her concerns, so we only begin to understand the larger politics at play though glancing and offhand interactions. She’s given the unenviable job of fishmonger at first, under the thumb of a failed novice who has built something of a fiefdom out of cruel treatment. He’s largely the regular kind of self-important jerk, but he’s also glad to heap misogynist punishment on any woman who has the bad fortune to fall under his aegis. Due to a sequence of bad events, Ileth and this fishmonger manager end up in a duel. She wins not due to native or acquired skill, but because he’s bad faith personified, breaking rules that he feels justified breaking because he’s never been taken to task heretofore.
He’s run off in a manner that promises his return eventually, and Ileth is shuffled off to a group of dancer novices. This section of the novel was itchy to me just on principles, even while I enjoyed the intimate nature of Ileth’s relationships during this period. Ileth moves from the girls’ dorm, which is ruled over by an Aunt Lydia sort of person, to a group who dances both for the dragons and for politically important people in the Vale Republic. It’s the kind of group who is, impossibly, both treated like a bunch of whores, and feted everywhere they go. I think the idea of sweaty, dancing women acting as a kind of soporific for dragons is ultimately weird, positioning dragons as a sort of male gaze, even while there is much exclamation to the fact that that’s not the case. This isn’t lingered on too much, which is good, because I could rapidly become both bored and angry with this idea.
But despite this shaky world-building, Ileth’s time in the dancer corps is the most intimately rendered part of the novel. Up until Ileth’s placement with the dancers, dragons were largely theoretical. They are always pulling on the fortunes of those in the academy, even as they remain largely off-screen; here we meet one face to face. They are like gravitational bodies mostly inferred through affect. But when Ileth is assigned a duty way down in the bottom of the keep to dance for an ailing dragon, that’s when the real magic of the novel starts.
Her relationship with the ailing dragon is like her relationship with the Serpentine in miniature. Her great strength is in watchful waiting, which she then turns into resourceful action. She spends much time simply observing the somnolent dragon, then carefully, carefully, begins to work on his behalf. She equally carefully observes the indifferent guards who round out the slim cadre of people on that level, and, like in her work as a fishmonger, divines a corrupt purpose to those who are supposed to care for the ailing dragon. Her conversations with the dragon are some of the more heartfelt of any in Novice Dragoneer, the sly imparting of wisdom from one just about run down but nonetheless full of history, to an ambitious, dedicated, but ultimately naive child on her way to matriculation.
Novice Dragoneer doesn’t so much end as middle. It decidedly has the feel of a novel that is to be a first in a series, laying out the world in a deft but sometimes withholding hand. The tight focus on Ileth’s concerns both gives and takes away, though ultimately I think it’s a good choice. The concept of world-building is one of those contested things, but I find myself much more drawn to fictions that hew to a character’s specific point of view over some scatterdash high level “As you know, Bob” way of building a universe. So not everything worked for me in Novice Dragoneer, but its main character did, completely and emphatically. She was a still and moving point in a complicated world, embodying the paradox of a young person on the edge of matriculation.
I received my copy from Netgalley.com