The Ironship Syndicate has a problem. This Trading Company turned governmental body has lands and operations to run, and the basis of its profitability and its strength is the blood of drakes, or dragons. Certain people can ingest elixirs made from their blood to gain temporary magical abilities. This magical science of plasmology allows for amazing temporary feats by the Blood-blessed. The sale and internal use of these elixirs, more than guns, more than steel, is what makes the power of the Ironship Syndicate possible. And the drakes are being hunted to extinction, and the captive drakes are not breeding. Without drakes, there will be no blood. With no blood, there will be no elixirs. And without elixirs, the power of the Trading Company will be under threat. The neighboring, pugnacious Corvantine Empire might take advantage, to the ruin of the Syndicate and its holdings.
And so a cunning plan has been hatched at the highest levels of the Syndicate. Long there have been rumors of a color of Dragon beyond the usual Red, Blue, Black and Green. A White dragon, located in the wilderness, whose blood might … well, what the power of the blood of a white could do isn’t quite known, but it could be the one thing to change the fortunes of the Syndicate, and perhaps the world as well. And even as the Syndicate brings together agents and talented amateurs and more to make an expedition into Terra Incognita in search of the White Drake, others have their own agendas and plans in these turbulent times.
The Waking Fire starts the Draconis Memoria series by Anthony Ryan.
The Waking Fire’s cast of characters is a diverse and interesting lot, from across the conflict and the world, giving the classic multi-person perspective with characters that do not often meet, physically, because of how they are widely spaced. One of the Blood-blessed powers, however, from Blue dragons, allows for a type of long-distance communication, which helps explain how polities like the Ironship Syndicate can function with a far-flung empire, and also provides for an opportunity for certain characters to exchange information and keep the various plots and threads humming along. Lisanne is far and away my favorite of these. Agent for the Syndicate, capable, sometimes ruthless, but also humanized, touched by events, and as capable as she is, the author throws her into situations where all of her training and experience is not quite enough, and Lisanne has to grow to survive. By far, I think she has the best character arc in the novel.
Where The Waking Fire does an excellent job, where its strengths lie, is in bringing the action and adventure to readers: from feats of sailing derring-do, to expeditions to lost civilizations, to an out-and-out city battle and siege. The book is loaded with these set pieces, and even more than the interesting cast, it is when the guns are firing, when the Blood-blessed are using their abilities, where the beats of action are pulsing that the reader can hear the Hans Zimmer soundtrack in their head as it unfolds onto the page. I suspect that this is a case where an audiobook of The Waking Fire might for me not be quite as effective as reading the book.
There is a real parallel between this novel and the first Django Wexler novel, The Thousand Names, and fans of one (as I am of Wexler’s work) are definitely primed to like the other. The Waking Fire joins novels like The Thousand Names, the work of Brian McClellan, and Stina Leicht’s Cold Iron as a superb flintlock fantasy.
In addition to the action and adventure, the novel has clear and present themes about resource extraction and depletion, 19th-century imperialism and ultra capitalism, and the uses of power. While the novel has clear opinions on these subjects as reflected and refracted through the plot, they don’t get in the way of the narrative and the characters. Having characters on various sides and roles in the conflict allows the author to let us see the problems and issues that he raises, and allows us to see that these are not easy questions and problems, and there are no easy solutions. There is sympathy for the sides, and when characters do sometimes hard and horrible things, there are good reasons, not mustache twirling, behind their motivations.
The Waking Fire marries the author’s prior longstanding skills at depicting action and adventure and interesting protagonists with a new and interesting world, global conflicts, and a dose of flintlock fantastic action. And Dragons.