Epic fantasy is an interesting genre. The traditional blend of a medieval setting with fantastical elements, like magic and dragons, is a popular pathway for writers looking to pen an exciting story and find an audience.
Duncan M. Hamilton’s Dragonslayer has a lot of the qualities readers of this type of fiction will like. At its heart, the book is a straightforward quest; with our hero, Guillot dal Villerauvais, or Gill, down on his luck and deep in his cups when we meet him. The stirrings of an old dragon, Alpheratz, who has been disturbed from sleep by the Prince Bishop’s mages provide Gill with an opportunity to restore his reputation. He is tasked by the Prince Bishop to slay the dragon and, despite being aware of the dangers and politics swirling around him, agrees and sets off to complete the task.
Hamilton’s story is set in a late medieval or early renaissance period, with some blurring between the two to accommodate the specific innovations and technology of the world. Armour is ornate, duelling blades are thin, but there are no cannons or gunpowder weapons. There is a sense of Dumas to the imagery, but no muskets to make our musketeers.
The story is a little ponderous at times as the use of different perspectives gives the reader information that the characters don’t have. Gill is slow to recognise that a dragon is threatening the kingdom of Mirabaya. The history of the Chevaliers is unpacked in a piecemeal way with different characters learning different things, which means there is a fair bit of repetition for the reader.
Similarly, there is a modern take to the detail which at times confuses the scenes. Full cooked breakfasts and casual brewing of coffee, amongst other things, feel like lazy writing. When Hamilton gets into detail in his descriptive writing the sense of period disappears. Instead, we have some kind of cherry-picked reality in which the reader is not expected to dwell on the detail as the writer himself hasn’t considered it overmuch.
A specific criticism in this regard is the novel’s adversary, Alpheratz. The dragon is given the viewpoint at times, which is a nice idea. However, Hamilton’s characterisation of his antagonist is lacking. Alpheratz comes across as far too human, with a touch of antiquity compared to the other characters in the story. There is little sense of this being an intelligent creature with a mind that considers the world in a different way. Instead, the moral constraints of Hamilton’s dragons appear to be an analogue of humans’, which makes the scenes between Gill and Alpheratz something of an exercise in identification and empathy for the reader. Whilst humanising a dragon character can work, there isn’t enough in the persona of Alpheratz to convey the difference between them.
Additionally, Hamilton uses magic in his story as a tool to solve situations in the plot. This can be a way to incorporate it into different scenes, but when done too much it becomes repetitive, and an obvious deus ex machina at times.
Dragonslayer is the first of a planned trilogy from Hamilton and a continuation of the stories set in his fantasy world. Readers who are keen on fantasy quests might find enjoyment in his work.