Dragons and teakettles, we’re off on another book review! Fluff your pillows and settle into the shade, because today we’re in for a story where dragons are rare but real, magic abounds, the old world order teeters on the edge of the knife, and it’s up to four kids and a wizard to save all that’s good.
Do I have your attention yet?
Portents of Chaos by K.C. Julius (narrated by Chris Walker-Thomson)
The Drinnglennin Chronicles, No. 1
Genre: YA High Fantasy/Adventure
Content/Trigger Warnings: infrequent mild language, archaic strong language, 1 violent death by burning, 1 named character death, some mild fantasy suspense/violence, affairs (including minors), drug use/addiction, implied domestic violence, innuendo, xenophobia (to the point of unjust internment and murder), alcohol and tobacco use, teenage marriages (including cousins), some mytho-religious content.
First off, a titanic thank-you to K.C. Julius for the review copy of her novel! I had a great time listening to this one, curled up, happily untangling yarn by the garrett window as I listened. If you’re interested in seeing more of her work, you can check out her website here. And as is required:
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own, because few are they who may tell me what to write and live to tell the tale.
Okay! On with the review!
Where to start with Portents of Chaos?
At first, I thought it was a sweet, charming middle-grade read. A soft dragon book with just the right amount of danger and all the nostalgia of long summers spent reading adventure stories like this back when I was the age of the protagonists.
My first impulse was to call it Percy Jackson meets Eragon. We’ve got our dragons and dragon riders, our wise old wizard mentor figure, our sweet, good-natured protagonist who can’t seem to find his place in the world (or do well in school), and the hint of adventure on the breeze. And the “Sorry kid, your parents didn’t like each other for very long, get married or live happily ever after, but now you’re magic, so deal with it.” That’s very Percy Jackson.
But those aren’t the only influences. There’s a rich backstory to rival Terry Brooks’ Shannara, a definitely not-Elrond Elf King in a golden wood that’s strikingly like Lindolothlorien, the horse-loving Halla who would get along famously with Lady Eowyn of Rohan, the difficulty in picking a single target age range like Crown of Three, and the high number of changing POV chapters and political intrigue of Game of Thrones.
Still with me so far? Hang in there, we’re just getting started.
Just so you can keep track going forward, here’s a short rundown of each narrator that appears in Portents:
- Leif, a very good boy who just wants to be the best he can be,
- Leif’s grandmother (to provide more insight into Leif’s character and let you know that she’s going to be okay after the Grand Adventure starts),
- Maura, a pretty country girl with a good heart who knows how to tame wild animals and stab you in the gut if need be,
- Borne, Maura’s friend, the stereotypical young knight-errant from humble means,
- Halla, a young lady who really should inherit her father’s estate because she’s the best one suited to rule it and can ride and fight better than her brothers,
- Whit, Halla’s cousin, also nobility, a bookworm who desperately wants to be a wizard and judges everyone else as a hobby,
- and finally, Morgan, the great (albeit dishonored) wizard and orchestrator of the entire adventure.
I do love a good ensemble cast. If you really ask yourself who the protagonist is, you’d be hard pressed to choose among Leif, Whit, Maura, and Halla. And it’s terrific, because if you relate to one character but not another, someone else might connect differently. It’s a great way to widen your audience and vary perspectives.
So like I said, my first thought was that this was a middle-grade read. Leif, the original POV character, has his thirteenth birthday in the early chapters of the book, which is pretty much the sweet spot for MG leads. But Maura is fourteen, if my memory doesn’t fail me, with Halla and Whit around the same age. And more importantly, there’s a lot of more mature content that had me asking “You did what in a middle-grade book?”
We’ll get to that later.
I should clarify that while I said Shannara backstory-levels, that’s not quite fair. Leif is so curious, every time when Morgan is deep in the monologue and you expect it to become a bone-dry history lesson, Leif interrupts with yet another question, making the whole thing livelier and a lot more amusing.
I could have read an entire novel just from Leif’s POV. Frankly, I feel cheated that we didn’t get to spend more time with him arriving in Mithralyn, watching him face such deeply personal struggles that Julius set up in his opening chapters. I wanted to see him meet the Elven king. I wanted to see this little man decide if he was going to feel his lack of worth or chin up and believe in himself the way he believes in everyone else.
But no. As soon as the mist on the forest clears, we’re in Maura’s POV, which is equally interesting, but, well, she hasn’t got Leif’s innocent good-heartedness.
And I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for wizards who are literally keeping the world together and get zilch respect. Oh yeah, that’s the disgraced old guy. He travels around the country. Used to be something great, but whatever. Don’t pay him any attention.
(Wizard keeps the country from falling into civil war, has a network of loyal spies, knows almost everyone personally, knows the roads of the empire like the lines and veins on the back of his aging hand, is the only one to use good logic)
It’s a trope. It’s a trope I’m here for.
What I’m not here for is the “enchantment of charm.” Or what I usually call the “Hot Elf Queen Trope.”
Turns out I’m not a fan when the shoe is on the other foot. It doesn’t make a difference to me if it’s an Elf king instead of a queen or a mortal who does the “enchanting.” I don’t like the idea that “they were so charming I couldn’t help myself.” That the allure of someone’s physical appearance robs you of your reason and self-control so it isn’t a matter of choice–
I usually don’t get this grumpy, but if you can’t figure out why this trope is outdated bogus that breeds creeps, if you’re just cool with that idea, go read someone else’s blog. This is not okay.
It starts out subtly enough. I’ll leave out names to avoid spoiling, but it’s essentially one character trying to convince another that his parents did have feelings for each other, were happy in each other’s company…before they split up and never saw each other again.
But then it pops up later, in Mithralyn, it gets repeated by Leif, worrying that a friend has no defenses before the natural charm of the Elves and will be completely taken advantage of. Right, so even our main character is buying into this idea that someone can be so magically hot that it’s game over and the other character has no control over what happens next.
I’m so infuriated I actually can’t think of anything else to say about this. No. Just no. Don’t do this. Don’t write this. Don’t read this. And certainly don’t believe this.
Then there’s Borne.
I hate Borne.
Not at first, of course, when he sweeps in heroically and flirts with Maura the way any number of pretty boys in MG and YA books do. But what do you call the opposite of someone growing on you?
I was a little surprised when he began describing all the other girls he’d flirted with.
And then when it became abundantly clear that he was doing a lot more than flirting. And was trying to shake a girl who was interested in being more than a passing fancy.
Yeah, he’s a womanizing jerk. Someone called him a man of integrity later in the book and I was just like “NO no nope no no he’s not. There are names for boys like him where I come from. Maura needs to run before Borne takes and tires of her too, because as poetic as he is, we’ve got no proof he won’t discard her like all his other ‘conquests.’”
And how about the fact that Borne, who I don’t believe is older than sixteen, has learned most of his tricks from an association with a widowed woman…some time before the novel even starts.
Even if we try to hope for the best and say maybe it was a really young widow (two other characters were getting betrothed in their early teens) and maybe it was only a year before the novel takes place, that’s still probably an awkward relationship between an older woman and a minor.
…yeah, going to just back slowly away from that one.
Frankly, I’m a little surprised (and disappointed) the “alluring Fay” trope and Borne’s character type popped up
- In a book not intended for adults
- In a book written in the last twenty years
- In a book written by a woman (sorry, but “men writing women badly” especially in sci-fi has had its repercussions on my opinions)
This is the modern era. We shouldn’t be repeating such archaic nonsense. We have power over what we choose to do, and boys who romance and then dump unassuming girls aren’t good people. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise.
End of story.
So…yeah. By this point, I was starting to suspect this was really intended for YA. You don’t see this sort of thing for middle-grade audiences very often.
Borne isn’t the only…problematic figure in the novel. There’s also Halla’s best friend of the å Livåri…who married at thirteen and has no problem boldly hinting about her experiences.
I get it, it’s a medievalesque fantasy, and in some cultures (particularly the nobility of Europe), marrying that young was the norm. It doesn’t bother me as much as other things. But I mention it because I’ve had at least one friend who doesn’t read as many old historical-style novels as I do and was utterly scandalized by the idea. So if that type of thing bothers you, be prepared.
And the fact that two first cousins got engaged who might have actually been genetic half-siblings…
Me, I’m wondering if I should be more concerned that the å Livåri, so clearly based on the Romani, are remarked on for loose living and flirtatious dances. It’s something probably no one else would notice, paying more attention to the way Julius condemns the xenophobia in her characters and slowly reveals the humanity in every group of people, even the drug-addicted Lurkers–but it doesn’t sit well with me.
There’s a special place in my heart for all wandering peoples. Factual or fictional. Sometimes when I’m working at Renaissance festivals as my minstrel-y self, I feel a kinship to them, something between fellowship and envy.
And after this many years of performing and reading, I’ve learned that there are–certain associations people make.
It’s been hundreds of years, but some people still look down on wanderers, on performers, on people who are different. And part of that is depicting them as exotic and sensual.
A base creature or an object. Entertainment, beggars, not unique people. It’s the curse of the “us-versus-them” psychology, of having someone outside the social group, but that’s no excuse for it. Maybe I’m reading into it because I’m more sensitive to this type of slight, but it makes me uncomfortable, Julius’ depiction of the å Livåri. I hope she doesn’t unthinkingly repeat others’ mistakes. I’d so much rather if she’d left that part about the sensuality out so there’s no chance it can be misread. Maybe she’s setting it up cleverly, the way she did with the Lurkers, and I’ve only got half the puzzle in front of me.
I say that, but the å Livåri were also among my favorites. If I’d been Halla, the first moment things started going south, Julius would have been forced to write “And she ran away with the å Livåri and lived happily ever after performing wicked good theatre and dancing with knives and now I have to go find a new fourth protagonist because that’s the end of that.”
While I’m on a roll, I might as well tackle the last sticking point for me in terms of content. Drumroll please, for the polytheistic mythology that is still obviously derived from Catholicism!
(cue maniacal bookmarkedone laughter and oh, why not, throw in a crash of thunder)
Clearest example? The Sin Eater.
I did a quick Google to make sure I was right about this, and while it’s not exclusively associated with church rituals, I’m not wrong in remembering it as a folklore item linked to religious practices, particularly Welsh Christianity.
In case you’re not familiar with it, this is an archaic ritual in which an outcast of the community would come and eat a meal at the funeral of a deceased person, symbolically “eating their sins” and ensuring them peace in the afterlife. Sort of like a human scapegoat.
You don’t read about that a lot in fantasy fiction. Why? Because it’s not prescribed anywhere in the Bible, not part of modern church practices, and it’s one of those things we just don’t talk about anymore because frankly, it’s a little bizarre.
But if you want more examples of borrowing in Julius’ mythology, there’s the fact that they still have what in a historical castle would be a chapel, complete with icons of gods and goddesses where the Catholic saints would be. And Whit’s mother spends most of her time in repentant prayer while his father is recalled as eating only plain food and wearing a coarse shirt close to his skin–two frequently quoted features of some types of medieval monastic life.
It’s just obscure traditions from Catholicism repainted with a veneer of polytheism.
One has to eventually ask the painful question: would it be uncomfortable for Catholic readers to discover a book with their faith mashed into a hybrid religion?
Or how about the fact that just when the full scope of the iconic gods and goddesses are explained, Whit proclaims himself an atheist, only interested in knowledge? As if religion always has to be restraining, something that belongs to one’s stuffy, misunderstanding parents and never to one’s self?
Guys, why do magical adventures and any type of religious faith have to be opposed? And I’m not talking about the cult-y stuff. Where are my D&D Paladin types at?
I say all this picky stuff, but the truth is that I couldn’t do that if Julius hadn’t so meticulously researched her setting. She didn’t just say here’s a dragon, here’s a castle, plop them into the page and away have fun. She found out how they really lived, the order of nobility in small earldoms and kingdoms, the social structures, the culture, the food, the language, the customs–and then she added her own magic system and unique cultural flair, not without its own share of careful thought.
“It wasn’t a practice for men of Dorf to embrace, unless they scored a point during Mob-Ball.”I think this is from the early Maura chapters…I just scribbled it down because I was busy listening…
This says so much in just a single quote.
- Men aren’t touchy-feely in Dorf
- There’s probably somewhere in this world where it is the common practice for men to embrace as a friendly greeting
- What is Mob-Ball? Haven’t got a clue! But it’s a game that belongs to the unique culture.
See what I mean? She’s done some good writing in here. Even creating the unique characteristics and voice required to effectively pull off a book with seven different POVs takes a lot of effort and skill.
Her writing style is nice, too. She has moments of description, as all writers do, but they didn’t seem to drag on too long. If anything, I would have liked a little more description of the characters early on. I’m still not sure what Maura’s pets look like, so I’m imagining some cross of a long-haired rabbit and a fox–but that’s probably my error, tearing through it too fast to catch all the details.
It’s really hard to dislike a book with the phrase “With the prospect of pudding to come.”
And can we take a minute to appreciate the narration?
Not only does Chris Walker-Thomson have a steady voice with a very pleasant British accent, he goes all in for his reading. I’m not just talking about changing the pitch of his voice so the different characters are easier to tell apart. He changes his accent, giving some of the characters a little lilt and Maura’s Lurker a Scottish accent so thick it was almost hard to understand him.
Not that I would have changed it for anything, of course.
It’s the type of narration where it sounds like the reader really enjoys the book, like he believes in the story and wants to share it with others. It’s in the little details, the way he recorded himself twice so when two characters speak at the same time, they really do, or singing when one of the characters is performing a song.
And of course, his voice for Morgan the wizard.
As soon as I heard it I perked up. It’s Gandalf, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, slightly gruff, with the same sonority and gentle, incredibly patient care in the tone for all he comes in contact with. It’s so similar that I can’t quite believe it isn’t intentional.
I might gripe here and there about the book, but I have no complaints about the narration. Not one.
What do I think of Portents of Chaos?
Hard to say. I don’t really think it’s one novel.
Let me explain.
I settled into the Leif sections expecting him to be the only protagonist. But if you think of it that way, look at each section carefully, there’s a lot of foreshadowing in each main character section that’s never answered. What is the deal with the “meat pie” that Leif’s granny hides in the fireplace ashes? Why does Maura’s Lurker keep popping up? What’s the deal with the crows hanging around Whit? Surely after introducing Halla’s å Livåri friends they’re going to have a larger role, right? And why do we need to know about Borne Braxton at all (really now)?
It’s more like five different novels stitched together, but then cut down to the length of the novel. It’s the sort of story where you have to read the next book if you want to get any sort of satisfaction about what happens in “the end.”
For that reason, the actual ending floored me. Epilogue? That couldn’t be right! I still had more book left, didn’t I? I felt like I’d only read the beginning and maybe the middle of something, like there was so much more left to come.
So if you like that sort of thing, Portents of Chaos is waiting! Like I said, it’s got a good flow and style that set it apart from a lot of other dragon books. And if it’s not your thing…well, thank you for getting this far and reading the entirety of this ginormous review. I may have gotten carried away.
Until next time, happy reading.