Well, this is ambitious of me, but I’m going to try and review an entire five-book series all in one go. I was prompted to do this earlier this week when I saw there had been another update on The Winds of Winter that did not include a hint of a release date. We’ve gone through about ten years of this, and I understand that now some people are a bit shy when it comes to epic fantasy series.
Well, not to worry: A Chorus of Dragons by Jenn Lyons was completed earlier this year, and all five volumes are available for binge-reading if you wish, which is quite refreshing.
Now watch me try and review it all:
At the start of A Ruin of Kings, we’re watching a shape-shifting assassin, Talon, trying to cajole a young man, Kihrin, to tell her his life story. This is an indulgence on Talon’s part because she already knows half the story—she was secretly there. So from the start, the narrative is split between a first-person older and a third-person young telling of what has happened to Kihrin—and a third in the present, between Kihrin and Talon. To add to it all, the past narratives are being complied by a mysterious third party, who loves adding rather snarky footnotes*. While this does sound confusing, it does give you the experience of having a pair of cliffhangers for a pair of narratives—but it all concerns one character.
Under Talon’s retelling, Kihrin’s story starts with the trappings of the usual ‘chosen one’ kind of narrative: raised by a musician and a brothel madam, he associates with the underbelly of the city of Quur. One night while indulging in a little breaking and entering, Kihrin witnesses a rather brutal magical murder. Horrifyingly, one of the murderers pulls an ‘MY BOY’ on Kihrin, and he’s whisked out of the slums to the d’Mon family compound. Turns out he’s a bastard son of one of Quur’s eight ruling families, and they want to bring him into the fold. Since Kihrin’s own retelling of his story starts with him being sold on the slave market with the wizard Relos Var bidding for him, we are aware from the start that things are not heading for a rosy family reunion.
During this time, we are introduced to the political structure of Quur, the reputation of the wizard Relos Var, demons, and the dragons that give the series its name Critically, we are also briefly introduced to a demon-touched young woman named Janel and our mysterious writer of footnotes.
I love him. He is the best boy
Janel is important because, in The Name of All Things, she becomes one of the two protagonists. Rather than having a narrative split between one character as in A Ruin of Kings, The Name of All Things is split between Janel and Qwon, a young monk with a connection to Relos Var, all framed with a meet-up with Kihrin and an approaching dragon. We are also joined by a new contributor of footnotes. Who, like her predecessor, is also the best. Personally, I think the framing narrative in The Name of all Things was a little more contrived than it was in A Ruin of Kings. And it’s possible that the author felt the same because in the later books, less and less emphasis is put on the fact that our protagonists’ stories are being recorded. The only conceit that reminds us that this is still happening is the continued actions of our footnote makers. And as a big fan of the pair, I was more than happy to keep them on board.
The third book, The Memory of Souls, is probably one of the strongest volumes in the series—which is saying something for a middle book. While the first half starts slowly, the second half is very action-oriented and it just gallops and gallops on from there. Now that we know how Kihrin, Janel and Qwon’s stories interact, the narrative starts getting splits up between even more characters. Is it confusing? Yes, a little bit. But are most of the characters distinct and likeable enough to make it all enjoyable? Also yes. We also learn more about Relos Var, and his relationship with Vol Karoth, the King of Demons—whose powers are growing to the point of threatening an apocalypse.
Speaking about confusion: I got the feeling when reading through the later novels that Jenn Lyons is one of those writers who writes for herself as much as she writes for anyone else. And I think she has multiple fantasy tropes that she is really fond of, alongside a complexity addiction. Because these books have everything. And a lot of everything. While I think going too far into the actual plot would risk too many spoilers, I don’t have the same concerns about revealing the following:
We have dragons that are not really dragons as we know them.
We have multiple magic races. Some are immortal.
We have demons.
We have a Kraken.
We have Gods.
We have God-Kings. (Who are not the same as gods.)
We have magically-touched feudal-merchant houses.
We have reincarnations and past lives.
We have a death cult that deals with resurrections. Especially if you have the cash to spare.
We have shape shifters.
We have body-swapping magical shenanigans.
And so many secret parentages reveals (Kihrin is far from the only one!)
…it is a lot, Seriously a lot. Lyons, it seems wants to do it all. With footnotes. And you? You might also have to take notes of your own.
This complexity is softened a bit by the books’ wry self-awareness. The only part of the series that reads anything like a more traditional high fantasy narrative is Talon’s ‘retelling’ of Kihrin’s story in A Ruin of Kings. The rest of the series sticks to a more chatty, cheeky narrative style that uses more modern colloquial language, which better fits the aforementioned self-referral nature and fast-paced narratives. Personally, this only rarely verged on grating (The word adorable got over-used a bit)
In addition, we are often aided by our foot-noting champions, who are very quick to provide snarky little clarifications when things get complicated, which is a nice touch when you’re trying to remember how who is linked to who—and why. (Or, if you’re thinking that all this death and resurrection is getting a little Dragon Ball Z-like, a reassurance that it is not just you, they think so too.) And I don’t know if this was Lyons’ idea or her editors, but there’s a summary of the story so far at the start of each subsequent volume. And the ones at the start of The House of Always and The Discord of Gods are excellent. (The latter is also quite funny)
I have to applaud Jenn Lyons for her audacity here. She’s set up a mix-it-all-together fantasy with multiple layers while playing around with different narrative structural styles. (I think I have mentioned before that I am a fan of authors who do go out of their way to play loose with conventions.) And while I guess it depends on taste, I think I had as much fun reading it as she did writing it. It’s absolutely trope-loaded, but it’s a real 50:50 split as to whether something is going to be played straight or gleefully flipped on its head. And why I won’t say it is perfect, the last volume does come together in a satisfying manner —which is impressive as there was so much that had to be resolved!
So if you’re enticed by the idea of starting a new series that won’t leave you hanging for 10 years, and you are not afraid of swimming around in an Olympic Pool of complex fantasy tropes, A Chorus of Dragons might be up your ally.