Maybe it’s just my evangelical Christian upbringing, but what Protestants call the “Intertestamental Period” has always been kind of fascinating to me. As a young’un, all I knew was that the Bible stopped for a while and then started up again; as a seminarian, I’ve got a way better grasp of what went on then, but there’s still this lingering fascination. It was a period of immense change in the Near Eastern world; a European power, Alexander the Great, swept through, and conquered everything in sight for like two weeks until he kicked the bucket. Okay, longer than that, but Alexander died young and his empire was shattered into what was theoretically four separate empires lead by his former generals. I saw theoretically, because the only ones you ever really hear about are the Seleucids (Near east and Persia) and the Ptolemies (in Egypt). Either way, the end result of this was a lot of Hellenization, probably one of the most massive exports of culture that the world had ever seen, and would ever see until Rome came along.
Brian Godawa’s The Dragon King opens here. A young general by the name of Xeneotas, eager to prove himself to his ruler, the Seleucid king Antiochus the Great (Father of Antiochus Epiphanies, who may or may not have been the abomination mentioned in Daniel and was definitely the one mentioned in 1 Maccabees.) disobeys orders and manages to lose both a battle and his army. Shortly afterwards, a small group of strange, foreign warriors raid a temple in Babylon, slaughtering dozens of guards and kidnapping two Babylonian magi.
Antiochus decides to send the disgraced Xeneotas– early on revealed as Antiochus’ bastard via a servant from the same foreign land– off into the unknown lands of the East, from whence the invading warriors hale, and from whence rumors of dragons issue.The Seleucid Empire is crumbling, you see, and upstart Romans are gaining a foothold in the Mediterranean; a tamed dragon would do wonders for solidifying Antiochus’ hold on his empire and keeping Romans at bay. Plus, by sending his disgraced bastard son to fetch the dragon (and reclaim the two kidnapped magi), he literally has nothing to lose. If Xeneotas returns with a dragon, then good; if he disappears on his quest, then the problem of his disobedience is solved.
Eventually, we discover “the Watchers” that the series takes it title from, and I’m going to leave it at that. Folks with some mythological or theological education will know what’s coming there; for those who don’t, I’d hate to ruin the surprise. But suffice it to say that stakes in The Dragon King get pretty big pretty fast.
Two things stand out about The Dragon King: First, holy crap, this book is well researched. I’m primarily a theology-type seminarian (we’re strong against pastoral-types, weak against devotional types) not a history-type, but even still, I found myself grunting my approval of Godawa’s handling of the Greek and Babylonian content in The Dragon King. Much of the action takes place in China, which I don’t know as well (Most of my Chinese history has come tangentially during my time as an undergrad student of Japanese.), but seems to jive with what I do know of Chinese history. Godawa’s handling of both settings is deft and believable. At times, Godawa’s research gets the best of him, and you get glimpses of a guided tour to the Seleucid Empire, but you know what? Luminaries no less august than Michael Crichton and Michael Flynn struggle with that, too. I can forgive it.
Second, the book moves at a really fast pace. For a busy seminarian, that’s a great thing. It’s not long, but it’s fulfilling, and the action barely ever flags. On the other hand, and your mileage may vary here, I feel like that’s also a bit of a flaw. If given a choice between something super fast paced, and something that is longer and slower, but with a great pay off, I’ll usually take the longer, slower work. And I think, even in the midst of the last couple weeks of the semester, I’d have loved The Dragon King to have another hundred pages or so.
Consider that a complement; I want to spend more time in this world. At one time or another, The Dragon King called to mind several authors; I already mentioned Crichton and Flynn, but there’s also John C. Wright’s “throw everything cool at the wall and make it all stick” approach and a dash of Frank Peretti’s spiritual horror (less ham-handed than Peretti usually was). It’s also nicely superversive; Godawa fulfills all the superversive mandates (Good storytelling, heroic characters, and a sense of wonder) with deft ease. I was given a copy for review, but I’ll cheerfully pay for the next book.
Unless, y’know, Mr. Godawa wants to keep giving them to me for free. 😉