Welcome to the Semi-Finals stage of SPFBO 8! As you know, we already cut 25 books from our batch of 30 and announced our semi-finalists. Check out our SPFBO 8 Phase 1 page for more info! In the next few weeks, we’ll post group reviews of each semi-finalist, then we’ll reveal our finalist towards the middle of October.
Our 3rd SPFBO 8 semi-finalist review is The Dragon Charmer’s Apprentice by JC Kang. The order of the reviews within a post will be the following: first will be the person who picked the book as a semi-finalist, and then the others in alphabetical order.
So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at our 3rd semi-finalist!
|Series: Legends of Tivara||Genre: Fantasy|
|Date of Publishing: October 13th, 2021||Publisher: self-published|
A slave shall rise from the ashes to master dragons.
Born into slavery, Mai’s horizons are limited to one simple desire: to catch the eye of a handsome mate. She dares not dream for more, for like all humans, she’s been taught from birth that her life belongs to the orcs, her destiny to serve.
But her world is upended when Aralas, a messenger from the elf gods, reveals blasphemous truths: humanity was created to be free; and hope—if it can be called that—lies in the jaws of the dragon Avarax, whom only Mai can charm with her unique voice.
Torn, overwhelmed, desperate to hope yet terrified of failing her kind, Mai has until a rare conjunction of moons to master magic that takes lifetimes to learn. Yet how will she discover who she really is when even her allies seek to control her?
Only by making the greatest of sacrifices will she manifest the power of a Dragon Song, and help mankind escape eternal servitude.
Out of all of the books that I had assigned to me for SPFBO 8, this one was by far the most well-written, consistent, and intriguing with regard to the overall story. It was also coincidentally the very first book that I read from my pile and ended up remaining my favorite when all was said and done. This is apparently a prequel in Kang’s Legends of Tivara books, which I admit to not having read. But if they are even half as good as this book is I will definitely be checking them out in the near future.
This book tells some of the history behind the Tivara world and centers on the main character of Mai in particular. Mai grows up enslaved with her people in Cathay, which has been occupied and ruled by the brutal turquoise-skinned orcs known as the Tivari. She knows nothing else except servitude because that is what the Tivari have convinced the people of Cathay that they are – mere pawns meant to obey the wishes and desires of the Tivari gods. But Mai has begun to question the status quo and it is there where the story really takes off into a fascinating and mysterious journey that had me deeply invested in this one the entire time.
The elements that truly made this an easy choice for my semi-finalist pick included some great characterization for one. I felt a bond with these characters and especially with Mai as she embarks on her personal journal of enlightenment. Also the world-building is so well done with some really magical aspects that I found delightful. But ultimately the story itself is what makes a great read for the most part and I just really enjoyed this story more than the rest.
While JC Kang’s The Dragon Chamer’s Apprentice delighted me with its worldbuilding and much-beloved East Asian-inspired settings, I didn’t go far past the 50% mark.
It’s definitely original; I really enjoyed the mythology, the themes of history rewritten by the conqueror, the exploration of the great divides between truth and legend, and the magic system based on music.
Yet its core elements, its character development, relationships, and plot progression tended to pale in the face of elf angel thirst traps and easy-to-solve conflicts, at least for the first half of the book. It’s a story that revels in archetypes, and while such a thing is not, by far, a weakness, it doesn’t sharpen them into piercing weapons enough for them to be a strength.
At 50%, the characters still feel a bit onedimensional and not that it’s a bad thing per se, but I felt this was one of those books that are so blunt it makes you aware you’re reading something scripted.
While I enjoyed its world, the intricacies and politics of what essentially begins as a rebellion against an oppressive system lay scrambled. I think it’d be a hit with romance fans or those who enjoy harem-like dynamics (as it seems to focus on that quite a lot) and those who enjoy more simplistic stories.
It just wasn’t the right book for me.
Our team agreed that we would not DNF a semifinalist until the 50% mark. This was a good idea, because there is a really great scene at 51%… but let’s start at the very beginning.
Mai, a village girl, spends her days weeding and picking rice, hoping to marry cute Li rather than the not cute Skinny Fang, and avoiding the wrath of His Holiness Cleric Pyuz. The food the villagers collect is offered to the Gods, who will punish them for eternity if they don’t work as hard as the Cleric instructs them, using his whip or turning them into ashes at his whim. This didn’t endear me either to the Gods or the Cleric, so I welcomed the appearance of a mysterious angel, emissary of the good Gods, as opposed to the bad Gods. The magic Mai unknowingly weaved with her voice would help restore the order.
What followed puzzled me. 1) Mai is told she can do something if she tries hard enough. 2) She tries, but not hard enough. 3) She either gets humiliated by others and hates herself, or just the latter if she’s alone. 4) She tries harder and manages. 5) She gets a new task to learn. Mai gets no real mentoring, only vague remarks or anger at her inability to immediately grasp what took others decades. It leaves her with less agency than I’d expect from a protagonist.
While the angel’s shenanigans, the diva, other side characters, and the worldbuilding are interesting, the linear plot gives them little time to shine, carrying Mai through her tasks. Interestingly ambiguous elements, such as the disdainful bureaucrat, remain unused – the divide between the good and bad sides is clear. Cleric Pyuz, in particular, only has one character trait – he’s evil.
Which brings me to the characters. I struggled to connect with Mai from the beginning. Li, her first love, who saved her skin more than once, exits the picture the moment the angel turns out to be very alluring. I hoped Li would get a happy ending once they met again. Instead, Mai was repulsed. “Had he always smelled so…sour? Mai’s nose crinkled of its own accord as she took a step back.”
The writing is strong, even if the structure didn’t work for me and I failed to bond with the characters. Once the book reached the climax, it didn’t end as much as stop – or so I felt. I could no longer invest myself emotionally in Mai’s journey once she dismissed Li the way she had, either. The Dragon Charmer’s Apprentice isn’t a bad book at all – it just wasn’t for me.
When I first started with The Dragon Charmer’s Apprentice, I thought I would really enjoy it. Having humans subjugated and enslaved by orcs was an interesting angle, as was the gaslighting imposition of their gods over the human pantheon. The narrative style was direct, if a little simplistic, but this initially worked well as it moved forward with a briskness that kept me involved.
The world-building was promising but limited given the hyper-focus on the characters; it existed solely on the peripheries, never forming into anything satisfyingly solid. This could be because, while standalone, The Dragon Charmer’s Apprentice exists in an established world, so a level of knowledge is expected. For me, this was a real shame as I really enjoyed the glimpses of Cathay and the dusting of myths and legends.
Where the book truly lost me, though, was when the main plot kicked in, as it was heavy with tropes I’m not a fan of and carried by characters whom I didn’t care for.
The main journey for our main character Mai is developing her dragon charming skills to ultimately save the world. For my taste, the training elements were so slow and repetitive that they couldn’t hold my interest. Her main trainer, Yanyan, is extremely two dimensional and the bulk of the scenes involved Mai being treated awfully and not appearing to actually develop.
There are romance elements involving a love octagon between an overly emo angel and multiple humans, which to me read almost emotionally abusive in places. Add to this a very bizarre scene later in the book with an unexpected and twitching penis, its groping owner and a demand to breed…not at all for me.
For me, there was no redemption in the ending, which just ‘happened’ with remarkable abruptness. Between a certain pair of eyes closing and opening a little later, it was finished, done. Some character arcs were wrapped up in a couple of unsatisfying sentences, it was so anticlimactic.
The Dragon Charmer’s Apprentice was never going to be a fit for me, so take what I say with a pinch of salt. If you’re a fan of YA, progression fantasy, romance with sexual elements, and androgynous emo angels who keep having to blow their hair from their eyes, check it out.
Where should I start with The Dragon Charmer’s Apprentice? I had a hunch it might not be for me, but I still wanted to like it if only because of the music aspect. I’m not sure which frustrated me more, the fact I didn’t like this book or the book itself. Nevertheless, it led me to DNF at the 50% mark. I was more annoyed by the characters than interested in them at that point, so it was better for everyone involved. Especially my Kindle, which I wouldn’t have liked to throw at the wall.
The Dragon Charmer’s Apprentice started out well enough for me. We got to meet Mai as a slave, working and living under the terror of the Tivari, forced to follow their gods, and basically dedicate their life to them. Surprising no one, it gets clear early on that Mai has a rebellious streak to her and strong feelings towards her family and friends. She also has a tendency for self-pity which gets tiring pretty quickly. When she meets the ever more annoying elf angel (at one point I just wanted to cut his damn hair myself if he was blowing it out of his face again), we suddenly get a bit of info dump regarding the world and learn that there are elves, angels (and apparently elf angels), orcs (the Tivari, about which I had no idea up to that point) and humans among other things. This was a bit disorientating as I had no indication there were other races out there – although I might have been wiser if I read any of Kang’s other books set in the same world, but alas.
My biggest issue was that there wasn’t a single character in the book I could care for, or even like just a little bit. Mai was either busy wallowing in self-pity or trying to please the horny elf angel who set her tasks, but otherwise not giving much help for her to actually achieve things. Then there was this diva, who was supposed to mentor her, but instead just threw insults at her and treated her like trash – I guess out of jealousy or feeling threatened by her, either way, she was pretty much an asshole to Mai. Which is fine, not everyone has to like her, but it just felt like no one really treated her well. Then again, she had a kinda shallow personality herself. First, she wants to learn magic to seduce Li (a boy from her village). Then when she gets to do that she instantly forgets him and starts to want to please Aralas (the hair flopping elf angel). She berates The Gang (and women in general who want to capture the attention of men) but she does the exact same thing herself just adds self-pity to it to make herself feel superior at the same time. She just made me want to slap her hard at times.
Also, can we talk about a pet peeve of mine? I said it before, but I really don’t like fake swearing. In this instance, Turtle’s Egg is being used as an insult, and I just found it hard to take it seriously. Then there is that scene where a dirty-mouther creature’s speech is being translated without any swear words. I was struggling with that, because if this book is intended for a YA audience and the goal is to have a “clean” book language-wise (something I’ll never understand being a sweary person by default), then why are characters who seemingly only care about sex and other people’s genitals (Mai is pretty fixated with Aralas’ in the part I’ve read) okay?
Overall, I was disappointed by The Dragon Charmer’s Apprentice, because it had a great potential to appeal to me – myths, music, Asian setting. I’ve also read one of Kang’s books a couple of years ago which I liked enough, so I had expectations. I’m sorry they weren’t met, but despite my quite ranty review, I really do hope this book will find its audience.
For more SPFBO content, please visit our SPFBO 8 Phase 1 page!