Guestwriter: John Enfield
This review was made possible by the gift of a review copy, QWERTY and rolling natural 20s.
If you like to glean inspiration and ideas for your campaigns from fantasy novels, you’ll be in for a feast when you explore ‘Spine of the Dragon’ by Kevin J. Anderson. It’s filled with all the trappings of an epic high fantasy story. This 510 page novel is familiar enough to feel like it belongs in the genre, yet it is also full of surprises and new ideas.
At the outset of the book, Anderson shows us a hint of his brand new story world through not one, but four maps drawn by Bryan G. McWhirter with a hand-drawn look and calligraphy-style wording as though they were drawn by a character in the story. They even have a distressed look as if they’ve lost a bit of ink from being carried around for a long time. Each one draws us closer into the story world from two country-sized maps down to a map of an island and another of a fortress. The one of the fortress even has the different parts of the grounds labeled as if you were going to use it to plan an attack on the place. The book’s design has neat little flourishes such as little spirals under the chapter numbers and a font that is evocative of a special setting (not just your basic Times New Roman or Calibri), yet easy to read.
You might need these maps to keep track of where the DM’s eye point of view is focusing next as we zoom in on the lives of over ten different characters spread out across the planet, many of whom are fleshed out with enough details and an interesting enough personal story to make you wonder if the book is going to be mainly about them. Each is worthy of having their own spin-off book, and they may eventually. This makes for a story world that feels alive, but it also sometimes results in confusion that Anderson usually clears up by repeating one of the character’s special traits, main goal, or problem that reminds us of where we last left them. Some of these far flung characters wind up being involved in each other’s story and in the main plot towards the end of the book. One of the many seemingly ancillary, yet very interesting characters is Shadri, who we first meet at one of the remembrance shrines. She’s just hired to keep it clean, but her insatiable curiosity and thirst for knowledge has her looking into, and questioning, everything. It’s a bit surprising that she isn’t more of a central character as she seems to be a good stand-in for the readers exploring the strange new world of this book.
This is the first book of the series, so everything is being gradually introduced in the story, but it is clear that there’s potential for this to become every bit as lengthy and complex as that of the Dune series, which Kevin has worked to continue with Frank Herbert’s son Brian. At times, the prose reminds me a bit of Dune with its sword and sandal meets space opera feel. Yes, space opera because although we stay on one planet, there are a couple of factions who seem like they may be members of an alien race (who is capable of creating creatures of their own) created by a being they consider a deity who may come back someday. There isn’t any overtly sci-fi tech in the story, but rather Medieval/magic stand-ins for such things. One of the best examples of this are the magic diamond-like crystals that hang from the ska’s (a new creature that seems like a cross between a dragon and a parrot) necks. These things record images that the creatures see as they fly around. The skas and certain members of the nomadic Utauk tribe share an empathic bond called a heart-link so that they can sense each other’s feelings.
The Utauks are one of five main factions: The Frostwreths led by Queen Onn, the Sandwreths led by Queen Voo, the Isharans led by Empra Illuris, the Commonwealth led by Conag Condurr, and the nomadic tribes – such as the Utauks led by Shella din Orr. Each faction has its own culture, religion, goals, special abilities and problems, many of which are in conflict with those of other factions. Trying to figure all of it out as the story goes on is one of the main challenges, yet at the same time joys, of digging into a new epic story world like this. Reading ‘Spine of the Dragon’ is quite engaging and will leave you hoping that Kevin J. Anderson writes more books in the series soon.