Friday, August 19, 2016

Fantasy Sucks Episode 2 - The Dinosaur Lords

In the second in my series of occasion and quite bitchy book critiques, I take on Victor Milan’s The Dinosaur Lords. Since it seems like I'm only ever going to critique things I hated, I'm naming this series Fantasy Sucks. I wrote about the Stormlight Archives a while back, so I'm retconning that review to Episode 1. This is Episode 2. Trigger warning for discussion of rape.

George Orwell noted there was such a thing as a “good bad” book, a work with no real literally merit that is nevertheless completely entertaining. I hoped that The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan would be one of those books. Unfortunately, it isn’t. It’s a “bad bad” book masquerading as a “good bad” book.

I can just hear the elevator pitch for this one. “Dinosaur knights!” It’s a concept guaranteed to make any self-respecting fantasy nerd’s waxy ears prick up, and dollar signs appear in the eyes of any publisher. “Dinosaur knights!” I exclaimed when I first heard of this book. “Endorsed by George R.R. Martin, you say? SU&TMM!”

The problem with The Dinosaur Lords is that it never really lives up to the promise of the fantastic cover art or pulpy, irresistible concept. In fact, apart from two or three battle scenes, and the little bit of set dressing, dinosaurs don’t really play much of a role in the story.  Apart from a few charges of hadrosaur cavalry and a stampede of ankylosaurs, it’s really just a sub-Game of Thrones fantasy with all the standard grimdark trappings – morally ambiguous characters, oppressed peasantry, asshole knights, lashings of misogyny, yada yada yada.

The most baffling choice that Milan makes – apart from choosing to focus on boring human politics in a novel about WAR DINOSAURS – is in his setting. The world of Paradise – which the author goes to great pains to tell us is not earth – is virtually identical to late medieval  Europe, even down to the names of the countries (Germany is Alleman, for instance, France Frances, and Ireland Ayrland). As the book goes on it seems to imply that aliens (Milan calls them angels, buuuuuuuuut… aliens) at some point kidnapped humans and a few animals and dropped them on another planet with lower gravity and magical healing powers and set up some bizarro version of medieval Europe, except with dinosaurs, because… we don’t really know. Despite this rather convoluted explanation, the direct-lift country names still just seem like lazy worldbuilding. It’s as if Milan was trying to build a world with a standard boring Europe-analogue fantasy setting, but couldn’t be bothered actually using his imagination and just said “fuck it, I’ll just use a combination of country’s actual names in languages other than English and simply switching the odd letter and amend virtually nothing else about the culture or history of these countries.” I mean, he states that humans have been on this planet for 700 years, and in that time we STILL have the same standard European countries, albeit with Spain as the dominant power. In that time surely, things would have changed up a bit. England (sorry Angleterre!) might have renamed itself The Glorious Kingdom of Chickenbutt and annexed Norway, for instance, but no. And how would a society in a world with dinosaurs develop differently? It wouldn’t? Oh. Everything is much the same, except with a figurehead emperor and evil pope who live in bizarro-Spain. Oh, and aliens who are also fairies and angels. Fine. Ok. 

I could tolerate the nonsensical worldbuilding, of course, if there was anything in the way of plot. But frankly, there isn’t. This book suffers heavily from “set up the next one” syndrome. Several characters don’t really do anything and I get the impression they are only there spinning their wheels before they become important in the sequel. None of the plotlines really pay off – sure, a corrupt duke solidifies his hold over a dumb-as-nails emperor, and a back-from-the-dead mercenary leader begins training a group of pacifists to defend themselves, but at the end of these stories nothing really has changed. The pacifists are still threatened, the emperor still dumb as nails (in fact, there’s a moment of Idiot Plotting regarding this character that I found rather far-fetched). And all the time these bloody aliens I’M SORRY, ANGELS are standing around in the background foreshadowing as if the government where about to enact a permanent ban on it.

Again, I could tolerate this (I’m a Wheel of Time fan after all) if the book has characters I enjoyed spending time with, but nearly all of them are gloriously flat. But not only flat, but unbelievable. One character – and I’m not making this up – is a dinosaur knight, expert swordsman and general, the world’s greatest poet, philosopher, and head of a religious order (who actually has cults of people following his teachings) despite being about 20 years of age. The other notable character is roguish dinosaur master, bard, singer, rogue etc. The sole female character is… a princess? She isn’t really interested in anything apart from mooning after Sir Perfect McMartystu, but she does get raped. That counts as character development, right?

Ugh, that’s another thing. There’s a time and place for grimdark, when it’s done well. But why is it that every fantasy author is trying for that tone right now, and seem to think the key to mastering it is inserting truly tasteless rape scenes into their work? I know some readers who will literally throw a book down if they see a rape scene coming up. Personally, I think that’s a little bit drastic, but there has to be a – y’know – point to it. What is the author trying to say by doing this? It has to be a little more than weren’t things shit for women in the middle ages? The rape scene in this book is like a primer on what not to do in this context. It seems utterly gratuitous, coming as it does in the penultimate chapter from one of the book’s POV characters. That means that her entire story – a good quarter of the book – is essentially working up to her sexual violation and there’s no examination of the consequences of the event. We never even get to know how she feels about getting raped since she immediately seems to forget about it in the final chapter. It almost seems to be punishment for her actions running up to the act – she is portrayed as selfish and quite cruel. Is Milan is trying to say she deserves it? I have no idea. And it’s not like she’s the only female character in the book who gets raped. I can think of two other secondary characters and one random extra who do as well. 

The Dinosaur Lords should really be a punchy, fun mashup book. It should be Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But it’s not. I kind of feel betrayed. I was stealth-sold a shitty grimdark book when all I really wanted was knights riding dinosaurs. I mean, it does deliver that to a certain extent – in the one decent battle scene Milan goes to pains to explain how a dinosaur is used in battle. But it just isn’t enough and there’s too much clich├ęd and dare-I-say-it problematic garbage along for the ride. There are glimmers of what might have been here and there – the roguish dinosaur master is witty and entertaining, but then they go and pair him with another character who lacks charisma on a cellular level despite supposedly being a legendary leader of men. The Princess’s banter with her ladies-in-waiting too is enjoyable. But the plot sags under the weight of all the foreshadowing. It plods along like a constipated hadrosaur, never really living up to the promise of its concept.

Nevertheless this book seems to have done quite well. A sequel, The Dinosaur Knights is out this year. Here’s hoping Milan gets his act together for the next one, though frankly I’m not sure I’m willing to subject myself to another one of his books any times soon.