"Remic once again proves that he is the Quentin Tarantino of Fantasy with The Dragon Engine, featuring infamous yet likeable heroes, plenty of visceral and uncompromisingly bloody violence, and Dwarfs and Dragons like you have never seen them before. Forget Joe Abercrombie, Andy Remic is the true Lord Grimdark!" - Lord of the Night @ Talk Wargaming
I have been a huge Andy Remic fan ever since I read The Clockwork Vampire Chronicles and found it to be the bloodiest, most brutal fantasy series I had ever had the pleasure of reading. Since then I have made it a point to read whatever Fantasy novels he releases, and thoroughly enjoying The Rage of Kings duology only cemented my like of his gritty and truly grimdark fantasy. Remic doesn't shy away from the worst kinds of violent and depravity, his characters are wonderfully flawed human beings that despite often being truly horrendous people that you wouldn't want to be in a country mile of, you still find yourself liking them, and his worlds delightfully subvert the traditional tropes of fantasy in very inventine ways (after all; Clockwork Vampires? Mud-Orcs? Elf-Rats? Brilliant.) So when I saw that he was writing a new series with Dragons and Dwarves, I couldn't wait to see what he would make of these two classic Fantasy races, and Remic did not disappoint in any way.
The lost Five Havens of the Dwarves is a legend across the realm of Vagandrak, a realm of treasure and the ancient Dragon Heads that can supposedly grant immortality. When a group of six war heroes of the Second Mud-Orc War drunkenly swear a contract to find the Dwarf kingdom in the forbidding Karamakkos mountain range, they believe it will be the adventure that will make them rich, famous and restore their zest for life. But neither the Dwarfs or the Dragon Heads are quite what these daring adventurers think they are, and as they are plunged into a subterranean hell it will take all of their skill at arms and inner strength to survive both the cruelty of the Harborym Dwarves and the awakening of the Dragon Engine, but whether or not the world will survive the coming cataclysm is another question entirely.
The story in The Dragon Engine is clearly half of a wider adventure, maybe less than half if this series becomes a trilogy. Remic uses the early chapters to establish the characters, but does this much more quickly than he did in The Iron Wolves, gathering the protagonists together within the first two chapters and introducing the main Dwarven character immediately after. Once this has been done Remic starts the quest off with no delay, which to me was a great improvement over the two-thirds of the book that it took to gather the Iron Wolves in their own novel. At first The Dragon Engine seems quite different from Remic's previous works, much more traditional (think Lord of the Rings) and less grimdark, but as the protagonists reach the Dwarven holds the book quickly turns into classic Remic; lots of cruelty, horror, blood and cursing. The mystery behind the Dragon Heads and the titular Dragon Engine was another great part of the story, it quickly became apparant that neither were what we were led to expect by the knowledge of the characters and the reveal of the true nature of both of them was stunning, and led to an incredible scene in the final act that very clearly drew a lot of inspiration from a recent movie (you'll know which one when you read it.) The novel uses a number of POVs ranging from any of the six heroes, and the ally they gain along the way, to the important Dwarven characters that show how certain parts of the plot actually occur, and a very enjoyable perspective at the end that very nicely sets up the premise and danger that is coming in the second book. Overall I found the story in The Dragon Engine to be engaging and gritty as all of Remic's stories are, but a bit more focused in direction than his previous Fantasy works.
The characters in the novel are one of the biggest differences from Remic's previous heroes; the cursed and violent alcoholic Kell and the rampant womanizer Saark, or the despicable Iron Wolves whose ranks included a drug addict, a serial killer, an insane torturer, a pit fighter and a brothel owner. Beetrax, Dake, Jonti, Talon, Sakora and Lillith read much more like traditional fantasy heroes rather than subversions on the idea; they are war heroes who care about each other, act like brothers and sisters (or husband and wife in one case), and they lack the cruelty or moral dubiousness of Remic's other characters. But that said, none of the cast are two dimensional fantasy stereotypes, rather than facing the challenges of insanity, drug addiction, betrayal by friends and PTSD from torture like the Iron Wolves, Beetrax and his comrades face challenges perhaps more relatable to the average person; growing old, relationships ending and not understanding why, losing the zest for life, longing for a real challenge, and illness and mortality. This, combined with their inherent likeability, makes them easier to read than Remic's more damaged and sadistic characters, simply because it's easier to read about someone when you like them. My favourite character story was the relationship between Beetrax and Lillith, it was quite nice to see a couple who actually cared about each other and whose love was based in real appreciation and admiration of the other, who made each other better people by being around them. The real star of this book though, to me, was Cardinal Skalg, a Dwarf who is definitely a villain, but whether or not he's the villain is a trickier question; Skalg is a rapist, a murderer and a petty tyrant and those qualities are shown early on so that there is no question that he is a bad guy, yet he showed some interesting depths later in the book and acted much differently than I expected him to based on my understanding of his character in a few scenes, which actually made me like him a little. The only issue I took with the characters was that a few felt underused, I would have really liked to see more character scenes and development for Sakora and Talon, who I felt were the least utilized of the group, which was a shame because both felt like interesting characters and what we did get to see about them only reinforced that. Overall I found the characters in The Dragon Engine to be compelling, likeable and relateable, yet still very clearly creations of Andy Remic.
The action is great, no question or doubt about it. On the back of the novel there is a quote from Sharon Reamer, author of the Schattenreich novels, and it reads; "Remic has a very precise way with descriptions of battles and fights and weapons of every type. The scenes leap and snort off the page, making the heart race with anticipation about their outcomes..." and that is exactly right. More than other authors that I read, Remic seems to instinctively understand the motions of violence and the momentum of battle; his scenes are not only visceral and gory (which in his works is a given) but flow from the page, the reader being drawn very easily into the savage fight scenes and brutal executions while also understanding clearly what is happening in the fights and why it is happening. Remic utilizes different styles of combat quite well from Beetrax's axeman type, Dake's swordplay, Sakora's empty-hand style to Talon's archery; the characters complement each other in battle with each member of the group fulfilling a different but necessary part of a dynamic that allows them to face much larger groups of foes and come out victorious. The Dwarves were also portrayed quite well in the battle scenes, their culture may be a subversion of the Tolkein ideal, but the Harborym Dwarves retain the durability, solidness and boulder-like strength that we associate so closely with the idea of a Dwarf; and Remic used it quite well giving the adventurers foes that didn't go down easily and posed a real threat to the group. The final scenes were absolutely action-packed and I particularly enjoyed a showing of just how dangerous the foes revealed in the end really were, yet at the same time showing that they were vulnerable and could actually be hurt with great effort; something that made the ending a cliffhanger but also one with hope in it. Overall I found the action in The Dragon Engine to be pulse-pounding and exciting, but most importantly of all (to me) I found it understandable and easy to read.
The pacing of the book was well done, and in my opinion an improvement over Remic's previous work. Where the Iron Wolves dragged somewhat due to more than half the book being devoted to actually gathering the cast, The Dragon Engine dispenses with that and focuses more on the actual adventure than the prelude to it. The cast gathers quickly and set off just as quickly, the book focuses on their adventure, how that adventure goes horribly wrong, and how it puts them right in the middle of the latest cataclysm to come to the lands of Vagandrak. No part of the book felt dragged out or too short to me, each of the chapters read very easily and I was engaged from start to finish. The worldbuilding was also very nicely done, Remic subverts the typical Fantasy ideal of a Dwarf, the creatures here felt more like the brutally evil Chaos Dwarfs of Warhammer Fantasy, while at the same time avoiding making them into evil caricatures by showing hints that a lot of what we see in the book is because they are interacting with humans or because the particular Dwarfs we are seeing are simply scum. One thing did puzzle me however and that was the period the book was set in; conversations between the characters reveal that the novel is set after The Rage of Kings duology, yet that series ended with certain characters still around, yet in this book they are not mentioned in a present-tense context, leaving me to wonder if either a third Rage of Kings book has yet to be written or if Remic is holding onto some events in the overall story of this world for a later book. Overall I found the pacing of The Dragon Engine to be well-written and flowing, and the worldbuilding to be interesting and rich with potential for more stories and series.
My favourite quote, or at least my favourite quote that wasn't nearly a page long and very very spoilery for the twist and cliffhanger at the end, I think it had to be this one;
"Make it count, Irlax. Because i'm going to f**king slaughter you, in this life or the next! You hear me, you hateful piece of donkey-s**t?"
The ending was very enjoyable and set up the scene nicely for the second book in the series. As I said above The Dragon Engine reads as one half, or less maybe, of an adventure rather than a self-contained adventure that tells a story with a group of characters with the next book moving onto a new story as The Rage of Kings series did. I feel that this will make the series more enjoyable as it makes the story a bigger one and allows for events to be more connected to each other. It does mean that by the ending however you'll be dying to read the next book, simply because (like me) you absolutely have to know what happens next! Some people may not like the sense that the story pauses halfway through as the first book ends to be picked up in the second book, but I feel that Remic did it well enough that it doesn't feel tacked on or as if the story is being milked. I also very much enjoyed the second to last chapter that showed one particular character is still in the game and also shows a very tantalizing, and at that moment very sad if you really think about it, hint that perhaps some of the answers about the mysteries in the story were not as concrete as they appeared. Overall I found the ending to The Dragon Engine to be quite satisfying and that it guaranteed I would buy the next book.
For a great story that had me hooked on every page, likeable characters that were one of the best parts of the book, and action scenes that were exciting and uniquely Remic; I give The Dragon Engine a score of 9.1/10. This is a Great book that I would suggest to anyone who wants to read an epic new fantasy or is tired of the same kind of fantasy stories being re-told over and over again, or if you enjoy seeing the traditional fantasy tropes being subverted in ways that you would never expect; if any of those things are true for you, then Andy Remic is an author you really should check out. However if gratuitous violence and profanity and scenes of intense cruelty and grimdark are not your bag, then I wouldn't recommend this book or the works of Andy Remic to you. There is actually a pretty good litmus test; watch a Quentin Tarantino movie (I.E Kill Bill, Django Unchained or Reservoir Dogs) and if you have no issue with the content (the violence, cursing and general atmosphere) and like what's there, then Remic is an author that should be added to your To-Read lists as soon as possible.
That's it for this review. Thanks for reading, until next time;
AVE DOMINUS NOX!