Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Elvenbane by Andre Norton & Mercedes Lackey

My Rating: 4.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.40 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.90 / 5.00

I read this title as part of a Read Along. You can find our discussions in these posts: Week 1   Week 2   Week 3   Week 4 

In a world where elves use their magical powers to enslave the human population, being the concubine of a powerful Elf Lord is a prized position. However, it demands certain sacrifices, such as being fed contraceptives so that they can never produce a halfblood child. Unfortunately, Serina attracts the jealousy of a rival concubine and finds that she is pregnant. Determined to keep the child she escapes into the desert where she goes into labor, seemingly alone. Fortunately, her birth pains attract the attention of a pregnant dragon shaman, who is unable to save the mother but takes her baby girl, Shana, to raise with her own offspring.

As Shana grows into a teenager she is a constant source of friction amongst the Kin. Unlike them she cannot change form and the younger dragons try to bully her whenever they can. Fortunately, her nest-brother, Keman is also an outsider because he is rather small and interested in other species. The two develop a close bond and he saves her live repeatedly and then risks his own when she is forced to leave the Kin and make her way in the world of Elves and Men. However, Shana soon finds that navigating that world is almost as dangerous as dealing with spiteful dragons as she is drawn into a war between the Elves and the halfblood Wizards who hide in the shadows because of a prophecy that claims that a halfblood will lead the humans to rise against their masters.

Considering that this title was published over twenty years ago, in 1991, it feels surprisingly fresh in its themes and content. I have read work by both authors before, but this was a new world for me and it had plenty of interesting features to keep me entertained.

I was particularly pleased with the authors’ decision to deviate from the usual trope of beautiful and wise elves. In this world they are actually aliens that built a wondrous civilization on another planet and then destroyed it, using a portal to find sanctuary on the human’s home world. Although they retain their usual beauty, grace and near immortality, they are also narcissistic and highly unpleasant, abusing and degrading humans for their own amusement. Indeed they are not even particularly nice to one another as they vie for position and personal power. The women have a particularly terrible time because they have great difficulty in conceiving and yet are blamed for this biological problem, which is caused by radiation from their new home’s sun. All in all, they are perfectly horrid and it is very easy to sympathize with the downtrodden humans who we encounter.

Given the cover, I realized that we would be encountering dragons, but the artist has done a poor job of recreating a moment from the book. As with the elves, the dragons are also alien to this world, but they have taken a very different approach to their life upon a new world. They remain hidden and use their ability to shift into other forms to hide in plain sight as they study both the Elves and their human slaves. However, they share the malaise and apathy that has also infected the elves and, while they deplore the mistreatment of the humans, they are unwilling to get involved with something that they perceive to be ‘not their problem’. Shana and Keman eventually stir some of the Kin out of their apathy, but this is controversial and their ‘trouble making’ is dismissed by many in the community.

The dragons here are almost nothing like the ones that we usually encounter in Fantasy titles, even those that can also shift into human forms. We are shown an unusual society structure and it was very welcome to see distinctly non-human beliefs and thought patterns in a race that is said to be alien. I always find it irritating when so-called aliens behave just like humans and never suffer from conflicts of understanding because they do not share our culture. Not only do these dragons feel totally alien, but they also seem to have biology completely different from our own. They can not only shift into a humanoid form, but also change all or parts of their body into stone, for example, in order to withstand terrible weather conditions or damage. I found their magic to be delightfully original and intriguing.

However, having said all this, I did have a few problems with the plotting. The truth of Shana’s true nature is kept from her in a way that stretches credibility to breaking point and causes needless conflict amongst the Kin. Although we could argue that this is due to cultural differences between the species, it simply did not make much sense and a few well-chosen words could have saved the poor girl from a huge amount of heartache. There were also a few plot turns that seemed rather predictable and melodramatic and which made me feel as if the authors could have worked a little harder to produce a more surprising and less formulaic result.

On the whole, this was a very satisfying read, although it did have a few plot points that seemed overly familiar. However, it was worth reading for the dragons alone and Keman, in particular, was a truly endearing character.

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