Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Talon (Talon #1) by Julie Kagawa

Ember and her brother Dante are young dragons sheltering in the Talon, a world-wide organisation encompassing all dragons from the genocidal threat of the Order of St George. It’s a  threat that looms even as Ember chafes at the restrictions Talon places on her – and the future it has planned for her.

Out in the human world for the first time, they are being hunted by St. George – including the hunter Garrett who is trying to discover which human in town is a dragon; and in doing so gets far closer to Ember than he expected.

When I saw this book I thought it seemed very original – I mean, I haven’t read a lot of Urban Fantasy concerning dragons out there so dragons having to pass as human and avoid being hunted while still being quintessentially draconic seemed like an excellently different concept, one I’ve only read once before.

Except it isn’t – because it doesn’t matter that these creatures are dragons hunted by the Order of St. George. They could be vampires hunted by the Order of Van Helsing. They could be werewolves hunted by the Order of the Silver Bullet. They could be fae hunted by the Order of the Iron Cross. They could be Telemarketers hunted by the Order of Screamed Obscenities and Hanging Up. It’s irrelevant, the story would be identical. The actual kind of supernatural being makes no difference at all to the plot, the character development or anything else. It’s a tragic waste of world building, development and original idea.

Ember herself is a horrendously generic character for someone who is supposed to be non-human. She thinks like a teenaged girl (and not a particularly smart one at that) not a dragon hatchling. Her mindset is entirely human. The few tiny attempts to show that she isn’t human (her like of shiny things) are miniscule mentions that don’t relate to the story. This is not only a wasted opportunity but it makes little sense in the limited world building provided and leaves Ember feeling like an extremely clich├ęd, generic character which is terrible because she SHOULD be more alien than just about anything I’ve read. She’s a giant firebreathing reptile, she was hatched from an egg, she isn’t even a mammal. Her viewpoint should be so far from human (or vampire or werewolf which are at least partially human!) as it’s possible to be – but there is nothing different about her. Worse we have some weird elements that just don’t fit and feel cribbed from other books – why does Ember refer to her dragon wanting something? Why does she even use the lines “my dragon wants…”? Why does she argue with “her dragon”? She is a dragon – not a possessed or changed human, this makes no sense. It’d be like me saying “I tried to walk past the shop, but my human was craving coffee”. I may try that in future “I was going to finish that job, but my human was bored by it.” It’s bizarre and feels like someone lifting “my wolf” lines from werewolf stories without thinking whether they’re appropriate or not.

And why does a giant flying reptile have any sexual or romantic interest in a small squishy ape anyway? Why isn’t their whole concept of what is attractive and sexy and appealing completely alien? Why would a creature without lips feel any excitement about kissing? There’s some attempt at this with Ember originally not knowing what makes humans attractive, but that all shatters when she sees her love interest so it comes off as less “I’m a dragon and don’t care about squishy monkeys” and more “I only feel attracted to my super special guy!” Which is an oh-so-common trope.

Sadly, her complete lack of draconic nature isn’t the only problem with Ember’s characterisation – there’s also a major problem with Ember, the rebel-without-a-clue. Ember hates the Talon and it’s terrible oppressiveness and is continually pushing against its rules, risking herself and her brother as she continually pushes the boundaries and consorts with illegal rogues. I could understand this is Talon was a terribly oppressive organisation that Ember cannot endure…

…But we don’t see any of this particularly until the end of the book. Sure, life under Talon isn’t happy happy fun and there’s a lot less freedom than you’d get outside it, but at the same time they are actually a species that is constantly hunted and under threat of extinction by a group of genocidal hunters and/or exposure to the world. The book opens quite early with Garrett, the principle love interest, hunting down and killing a dragon. Talon expecting everyone to be members (and even makes a reasonable point that dragons nearly became extinct BECAUSE they were independent and territorial and refused to work together) and play by the rules doesn’t feel all that unreasonable until the very very end of the book. But Ember is rebelling and investigating and meeting Riley and all suspicious long before then. At the time when Ember is acting out, she’s a 16 year old whining because she has lessons in the morning (so only has the afternoon to surf and hang out with friends) and has a curfew by midnight (the horror!) and she isn’t allowed to turn into a dragon and fly over a human city and popular holiday destination. These rules aren’t unreasonable, they aren’t oppressive and Ember comes across as a whiny, tantrumming teenager because of it.

Which makes me all the more sympathetic towards Dante who, I think, I’m supposed to see as betraying and abandoning his sister. She is furious at him for mentioning Riley – who she hadn’t even spoken to at the time – to Talon; actually following the law about reporting rogue, lawless dragons to the powers that be. She is furious because he objects to her meeting said Rogue (breaking the law herself), breaking curfew, flying where humans can see her and generally doing her very best to ruin her and Dante’s life for little good reason. This not only makes Ember a very annoying character who quickly frustrated me but it makes so little sense – why is Ember doing her level best to tear up her and her brother’s future like this? Why is she so determined to meet this dangerous outlaw? Why is she so willing to protect him? It feels like shaky writing – her motivation is provided AFTER her actions and it really doesn’t work. I’m actually more annoyed that the Talon does turn out to be highly oppressive because it was classic author validating the character’s unjustified decisions.

The other characters are not especially developed. Garrett is the improbably perfect super-soldier of St. George at the dubious age of 17 sent to hunt down evil dragons but finds Ember super compelling and then religious follows the script o YA love interests everywhere. Cobolt/Riley is the rogue dragon (and plays Jacob to Garret’s Edward in the forced love triangle) who has a passionate need to protect poor hatchlings from Talon – until he meets Ember who is super special and worth risking all for. Yawn. Both characters could have been lifted from any book

Other characters are background – we have some human girls who talk about boys and shopping and are Ember’s friends though she seems to find them immensely boring. Dante is meant to be seen as a good little conformist but seems more like the island of sensibility in a sea of pretty enraging characters. I can’t remember a single minority among the whole cast – certainly not a memorable one.

I’m trying to think how best to summarise the overall feel of this book without sounding too personal with this review, but my overwhelming feel of this book is that it was phoned in. A huge amount of the write-by-the-numbers tropes of YA where there – star-crossed romance, love triangle, she’s a rebel without a clue, falling in love at first glance, etc etc - all thrown together and then the word “dragons” slapped on top. The plotting was shaky, the world building largely non-existent and the character development and decisions pretty damn shoddy. It felt like someone writing desperately to a deadline while hung over so they just threw something together – and that end something isn’t bad in the “this was written by a drunken aardvark on crack” sense so much as it was depressingly generic, lazy and dull. You could read it and never be appalled or disgusted – just thoroughly thoroughly bored and sure you’d read it 100 times before – because it’s pretty indistinguishable from so much in the genre.