The Rage of Dragons, the debut epic from self-publishing success story Evan Winter, distinguishes itself by its setting, a fantasy world inspired by Africa, but truly impresses with its storytelling. It weaves a tale of determination, love, revenge, and war that is, at its core, the story of one young man who, even as he seeks to improve his life by learning the art of war, must grapple with deadly politics, powerful magic, and a threat that could destroy an entire civilization.
The novel starts off with a obligatory prologue that provides essential background information in the guise of an action sequence, as a colonizing force fights to establish a foothold on a unknown, hostile continent: Queen Taifa and her people, the Omehi, having crossed an ocean, attempt to wrest control of a new land from the local inhabitants. This opening reveals a lot of the fantastic elements of the setting that slip into the background for much of the book (these early pages provide our most extensive view of the titular dragons).
From there, the book picks up two centuries later with the story of the protagonist, Tau, one of the Omehi people, who have been fighting the local inhabitants ever since to maintain their hold on a precarious peninsula. The conflict has ranged from raids to full scale combat, and there is always the need for more warriors. Tau is a young man in a war-torn society, seeking a martial path to greatness. He has ambitions to be Ihashe—an elite military fighter—a rank that he, as a member of one of the lower classes in his rigid, caste-based society, can never surpass. Were he to prove his skill to be accepted to train to become an Ihashe, he could support and provide for the woman he loves, Zuri.
It’s a good plan for a life—and quickly dashed. A grave injustice committed against Tau causes him to redouble his efforts to join the Ihashe—but this time only so he can take revenge against those who wronged him. Tau has a long list of enemies, and he intends to deal with them one-by-one, and violently. To do so, he must first learn the art of combat and shape himself into an instrument of vengeance. Edmund Dantes would completely understand. Even as he trains and continues to try to win Zuri’s heast, the fires of Tau’s violent desires burn bright within him, threatening to overwhelm his dream of a peaceful future.
The meat of this series-launching novel is concerned with Tau’s training to be an Ihashe and his attempts to fulfill his plans of revenge. Over time, he learns to fight individually, then as part of a unit, then as a leader of one. The narrative is replete with scenes of small and large-scale battles and skirmishes, as all the while, Tau continually plots and plans. These sections are rich in verisimilitude and light on the genre trappings; Tau’s becoming often reads more like a realistic tale of bronze age warfare than something unfolding in an epic fantasy setting. It’s all very well-structured and compelling; readers with an interest in the minutiae of military tactics and hand-to-hand fighting will especially love this middle portion of the book. And for the fantasy fans, well: Tau does eventually engage with the fantastical elements of the world while on his quest to master the blade.
As events progress and a new threat to Tau’s world arises, the book shifts gears yet again, becoming a story of political turmoil, intrigue, infighting, invasion, and revolution. What could’ve been a jarring transition works surprisingly well, and feels natural after all the time we’ve spent with Tau as he levels up and develops the strength and skill to deal with concerns far greater than a single opponent or a singular quest for revenge. The fate of nations hangs in the balance, and Evan Winter does a great job aligning and contrasting these larger concerns with Tau’s personal desires. It’s also in the lead-up to the finale that all the fantastical elements glimpsed throughout the novel come to the fore, resulting in a frantic, pulse-pounding siege that pays off on all the promises made in the hundreds of preceding pages.
While the plot is engrossing, Winter excels at theme and worldbuilding. Tau’s society is a highly stratified by social class, and his attempts to make a name for himself despite his lower-class origins give him drive as a character even before he is pushed onto a path of revenge and rampage. Themes of the injustice of war, the importance of love and friendship, and the utility of sacrifice serve to lend the characters rich inner lives. We get to know Tau best of all, given that the point of view that sticks closely to him, but our window into his world is wide enough to give us a good look at all of the people in his life, providing a set of characters for the reader to cheer and fear for, especially when the odds are stacked so high against them.
If you favor comparisons in your book review, The Rage of Dragons is a a Xhosan Gladiator crossed The Count of Monte Cristo, with a dose of the politicking of A Game of Thrones politics in for good measure. All in all, it’s a winning formula for an impressive fantasy debut.