THE DRAGONS OF SHEOL Review: “A solid, well-balanced novel within an epic framework”
Writing a novel is a bit like cooking dinner for someone else: a badly prepared meal will appeal to no one, but even a well-prepared main course will not appeal to everyone, since tastes legitimately differ.
Having said that, it is always a special pleasure for me, as a writer, to find a kindred spirit that seems to appreciate the same things in novels that I do. I am so grateful for speculative-fiction-author Tessa Stockton’s thoughtful and insightful five star review of The Dragons of Sheol.
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After having finished reading The Dragons of Sheol, I can’t help but come away feeling as if this is one of the most solid, well-balanced novels within a high fantasy, epic journey setting. This is not a subgenre in which I often read, as it’s not one of my favorites in the speculative fiction realm. However, the amount of work and detail the author skillfully presented was impressive. That in itself won me over, never mind the successful plotline.
This is some of what I appreciated about the book: deep symbolism, amount of fine detail, weapons hosting names, well-developed and likeable characters, as well as villains who make you cringe. There’s an array of interesting creatures—and I enjoyed that a vicious lup was adopted and turned rather cute and helpful. I also favored Hanomer, a critter with a hand at the end of his tail, and the green dragons were downright cool. The story held intriguing manners of communication, and the powers of nature were highly descriptive. Abaddon is evil and the dark magic that presides there invokes fear and trepidation as it should. The Dragons of Sheol is a complex story well carried out.
As a Christian reader, there are refreshing surprises along the way. One is with Al, a protagonist who kick-starts this journey in a search to find his kidnapped pregnant wife and stepson. The honesty that is painted regarding his sense of failure and defeat followed by purpose is realistic and relatable. And I appreciated most of all how questions were presented about the nature of God via down-to-earth conversations between characters; therefore, it never came across as preachy. A teaser from one of my favorite exchanges comes from character Dave in speaking to Al: “At the end of the day, my question still stands. Can God really love me if he’d let me choose a destiny that involves eternal torment?” It’s this kind of philosophical exploration that works—really works in causing one to think and ask those tough questions regarding spirituality and fate.
Overall, I was impressed with the amount of creativity, philosophy, purpose, sheer writing skill, and also a unique addition of scientific elements to cap this outstanding world-build. We are gifted by the author with the explanation of air pressure and how it is that dragons can fly, the topography of Abaddon, contour of the terraces, relative maps, and an in-depth glossary.
In offering something constructive, it would be with the chapter titles. Seems like an insignificant thing, and maybe it is. However, I as a reader find that an air of mystery would have had more impact. Many of the chapter titles here flat-out told me beforehand what to expect, and that kind of killed the suspense for me (because I especially love elements of suspense and mystery). As an example, when I read the chapter heading, “Necroan Attack,” I thought, “Okay, something called a Necroan is going to attack,”—and I was right! With all the interesting twists throughout this book, the chapter titles seemed, in contrast, too direct in telling. One of my writing coaches from back in the day said the best thing for a writer to give a reader is room for their own imagination to fill in some blanks. Tease them with hints of what a chapter might be about, but don’t summarize the chapter by its heading.
Those who admire J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis will really dig this epic fantasy by Peter Kazmaier, as their influences are evident. Yet, I can also recommend this book in general, even if it isn’t what you’d typically read, because it’s very well done and deserving of a five-star review.
I received this book as an ARC for free and am giving it my honest review voluntarily.
Sample Chapter 1 Dirty Tricks
Dave glowered at the diminutive figure darting and swaying before him like a jack-in-the-box. Wiping the sweat from his swollen left eye, Dave mumbled to himself, “Come here Brandor, you half pint. All I need is one touch with my quarterstaff and you’re finished.” Not for the first time in this match, Dave wished he had picked a lighter weapon. Maybe then he could land a blow.
His fellow students at Gur Academy stood in a circle around the two combatants, cheering them on.
“Come on Rokodor,” called one using Dave’s Gurundarian name, “All you have to do is fall on the little squirt to win.”
“Brandor, stop with the bouncing around. You make my eyes tired,” chimed in another.
Dave fixed his eyes on Brandor’s, whose slender form was seventy pounds lighter than Dave’s solid, well-muscled body. He could smell Brandor’s self-confidence. Then he saw his opponent turn and smile at one of the young women watching them. Dave seized the moment and rushed in, raising the end of his staff for a quick blow.
Brandor evaded the swing easily, crouched and swung a low, sweeping blow at Dave. Dave felt a sharp crack on the side of his leg. It sent him sprawling to the ground, gasping in pain. He moved to get onto his feet.
“Stop!” came the order from the Academy commandant. Brandor was poised to drive his quarterstaff into Dave’s head, as Dave crouched, vulnerable, on the ground. Dave dug his fingers into the sand of the practice ground. He could smell Brandor’s indecision. He could sense his hatred.
“You’re lucky, skork. You don’t belong here with us. Go back to your own kind,” said Brandor through gritted teeth. Sullenly, he pulled his weapon back from the killing blow, then stood at attention, facing the commandant.
Skork was the pejorative used to describe all bent and broken peoples from the zombie-like Apemen, to the Halfmen, and even to Dave’s own people who were inferior to the Ancients in longevity, speed, and several other attributes.
Brandor was a young nephew of Arachodor, a member of the ruling Council of Thirteen. Arachodor had objected strenuously to Dave’s acceptance into Gurundarian society, after Sirona the healer had called him back from death. In saving him using a healing plant tuned only to Ancients, Sirona had changed Dave’s body from that of a Lesser Man (what Ancients called ordinary people from earth) to that of an Ancient.
I wonder if Brandor would have killed me if the commandant hadn’t stopped the match? No one’s been killed during Academy combat training in more than a hundred years, Dave thought.
He stood up gingerly and limped toward the circle of onlookers. The Academy stood high on the western slopes of the Barrier Mountains and he could see the vast expanse of Lake Tolbar shimmering in the distance. His wife, Arlana, came toward him. Clutching his right arm to support him, she walked with him away from the crowd.
Dave was glad she didn’t talk about the fight. She had neither his strength nor toughness, but she was as fast as thought. She had deftly handled Brandor in a sparring match the previous week. She still had a bruise where Brandor had flailed out and “accidently” hit her when she had started to walk away after their match. Dave had planned to teach Brandor a lesson today—and hadn’t been able to touch him. The humiliation was almost unbearable.
“Well, husband,” said Arlana, “are you ready for our expedition test the day after tomorrow?”
“I think I’m ready, Princess. Any idea where we’re going?”
“I hear we’re heading to the eastern slopes of the Barrier Mountains to replant the guardian trees that were burned by the Halfmen.”
“Sounds easy enough,” said Dave.
“Things are never easy when we’re close to the Skull Mountains,” said Arlana.
“I wish we could get some leave and head home,” said Dave.
“You’re thinking what I’m thinking—how are Al, Pam and Little Thomas?”
“I am. Since we’ve been at the Academy, we haven’t been able to visit our ‘mailbox’ to see if they’ve sent us a message from home. They’re probably wondering why we haven’t answered.”
“Shhhh, Dave. Keep your voice down,” whispered Arlana.
Dave glanced over his shoulder, relieved that there was no one in sight.
“Anyway,” continued Arlana, still whispering, “Since Al and Pam know we’re away at the Academy, I don’t think they’ll be too worried about our lack of communication.”
When they finally reached their quarters, Dave went out back to wash in the creek-fed shower. When he returned, he saw Arlana and Ferris, her cousin, in serious conversation. They looked up as he limped in.
“What’s going on?” asked Dave. “You look like there’s been a death in the family.”
“We have trouble, Dave,” said Ferris. “Your old enemy, Arachodor, used his influence with some of the teachers. He’s made the motion that you shouldn’t be allowed to join the cadets on their expedition. They claim your lack of competence makes the trip too dangerous for you.”
“Arachodor’s concern for my welfare is—well—touching. Can they really do that?”
“They can, and they are trying to do exactly that. I’m about to head over there now, to intercede on your behalf. You deserve to take this first test. Arlana and I have been training since we were very young. You may not have had all the instruction we’ve had, but you’ve seen more real combat than half the Rangers in our force. That should count for something. Perhaps they’ll listen to a seasoned Ranger who knows you.”
Dave sat down and poured himself a cup of siph. “What I don’t get is why Arachodor’s argument for my exclusion is even being considered. After all, we’re only going camping alone on the other side of the Barrier Mountains; there will be seasoned Rangers and Guardians on patrol—so where’s the danger?”
“Husband, as I said before, anytime we are on the other side of the Barrier Mountains we are in the wild and there is danger. The guardian trees have been destroyed in large measure, so there is no protection from that quarter.”
“But I thought,” interrupted Dave, “that the Bent Ones had all fled to Abaddon, and the Halfmen would be cowering in the Skull Mountains, nursing their wounds.”
“We have no proof,” said Ferris, “that the Bent One controlling the Halfmen has left. He may have left. He may still be there. Or maybe a black swamp oak has been established in the Skull Mountains, so that he can travel back and forth to Abaddon. We just don’t know, and so we assume the worst. That is why we train so long before venturing beyond the Barrier Mountains. From the cadet leader’s point of view, you have had much less training than the other recruits.”
After Ferris left, Arlana looked at Dave as if she were deciding whether to tell him something.
“What is it, Arlana?”
“What Ferris said, about us learning to fight from our earliest years is true, you know.”
“Are you telling me you know why I’m losing to a pipsqueak like Brandor? I know I’m losing because I’m just too slow.”
“You’re not too slow. You’re actually much faster now than you were before you became one of us. You’re losing because he knows exactly what you’re going to do a fraction of a second before you do it. Let me show you.”
She picked up her light quarterstaff and took up a defensive position with her left foot forward. Look at the muscles in my arm and my calf; do you see how they’re tensed? It means I’m getting ready to evade.” She shifted slightly. “Now I’m ready to launch an attack. Do you see the difference?”
“So that’s why you beat the little twerp. He was so busy watching your beautiful muscles flexing and unflexing that he completely forgot to defend himself.”
Arlana jabbed Dave in the shoulder with her quarterstaff. “Kree ah na koo! Stop joking. This is serious. In two days you could be out on the mountain slope without me to take care of you. How would it look if you got yourself killed? All the women would wonder if you went out looking for death to get away from me. Think of what that would do to my reputation.” They both burst out laughing.
She knows how to handle me. She’s not just good to me—she’s good for me, Dave thought.
“One more thing, husband. You probably don’t yet realize how much more acute your sense of smell is now that you’re an Ancient. By paying attention to your nose, you can tell a lot about your opponent. Is he fearful? Is he confident? Is his anger growing? All these emotions will tell you what he will do next.”
They sparred for a couple of hours with only the occasional breather. Dave began to see what Arlana meant and started to anticipate her moves. Then Arlana showed him how to disguise his next move by deliberately attacking from a disguised defensive posture.
The door opened and Ferris entered again. He was scowling.
Dave’s spirits flagged. “I take it they won’t let me go.”
“Actually,” said Ferris, “they were surprisingly easy to convince. Your father-in-law, Kelldor, and your adopted father Celyddon, had anticipated this last-minute difficulty and were both there to speak on your behalf. The board of the school logged Arachodor’s protests, and then capitulated, agreeing to let you go.”
“So why the long face?” asked Arlana.
“It was too easy,” said Ferris. “I think all of us have been duped. They’re digging a pit for you through the test, and they wanted to register their disapproval in advance. If you have an ‘accident,’ they’ll shake their heads and say, ‘We did all we could to avert this tragedy.’ Be on your guard and watch your back.”
It was getting late and Ferris left. Dave and Arlana began to organize their equipment for the trip. Dave tried on his living cloak, hung a small satchel containing a light gourd around his neck and strapped on his long belt knife, which he had named Skene Dhu. Dave had found his knife, along with his sword, Gram, in a blade tree near the Ancient fortress of Kellburg.
Dave realized he needed a tie to fasten his sleeping blanket to his pack. He had some stout leather, which he had taken from the hide of a Rokash. He took out Skene Dhu and examined the blade lovingly. It had a lustrous blue sheen unlike any other metal blade. The bioengineered alloy of molybdenum-tungsten steel, protein spacer, and diamond fiber, cut through thick Rokash leather as if it were the thinnest of papers.
He put the knife back in the metal-lined sheath and walked over to Arlana.
“Princess, I want you to take this.” He held out Skene Dhu.
“Dave, I couldn’t. The blade tree knife came to you. I have a good knife …”
“Arlana, please take it. I need to keep you safe. If you don’t have this knife, I’ll worry.”
She peered into his eyes, as if wanting to wrest his thoughts from him. Suddenly she relaxed, raised herself on her toes, and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
“We’ll trade knives. Viper will look after you.” She handed him her knife and scabbard and then they both turned to organize their packing.
“No, no ye fool,” Grimbor, the Blade Meister growled as he jabbed Dave in the lower chest. “Rokodor, ye canna shift from an evade form directly to a cut or thrust form. Yer feet are not set. It makes ye too slow. How many times do I have to tell ye that ye must use a transition form first?”
Dave was exhausted. Grimbor had summoned him, to offer some extra help on using his sword after yesterday’s fiasco with his quarterstaff. Now after three hours, Dave was laboring and Grimbor didn’t even seem to be tired.
Dave began to circle once more. Grimbor was shaped like a fire hydrant, with no waist. He was much shorter than Dave, but his shoulders were just as broad. Yet he was fast as well as strong. With his eyes fixed on Dave’s, Grimbor’s feet and sword moved in perfect coordination, with a grace and fluidity Dave wished he could match.
After another flurry of exchanges during which Dave was barely able to evade and block the lightning attacks, Grimbor sighed and said, “Enough fer today.” Sitting down, he gestured to a space on the bench beside him and offered Dave a drink of water.
Dave took a long pull from the water skin and handed it back to Grimbor.
“I know I’m bein’ hard on ye lad, but I’m tryin’ to get ye ready for the test tomorrow.”
“Even if I see a Halfman tomorrow, I don’t think he will press me nearly as hard as you do, Blade Meister.”
Grimbor’s eyes became hard. “It’s not Halfmen I be thinkin’ of. Fer a youngin, ye have many enemies, and to my way of thinkin’, Halfmen are not the most dangerous of ‘em. Watch yer back and practice yer forms every night when it’s safe to do so. Hmm.” Grimbor lapsed into thought.
After a while he spoke again. “Rokodor, ye be fast, and ye have good instincts,” he said. “But ye spend too much time thinkin’ what to do next, and when ye be thinkin’ ye not be watchin’ the enemy. I be wantin’ ye to use only one form in each of the five categories. Practice those until ye can change from one form to the other without thinkin’. When you have those perfect we be addin’ some more.”
With that, Grimbor rose and clapped Dave on the back. “One more thing, Rokodor, find a safe campsite. The safest be a campsite yer enemies canna find. The second safest be one where ye hear ‘em coming. Be smart! Be safe! Come back to me alive.”
 An expression in the Ancient Tongue meaning “May the Creator help me!”