Review: Named of the Dragon

By Paula R. Stiles

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nameddragonKearsley, Susanna. Named of the Dragon. New York: Berkley Books, 1998. $6.99 USD. ISBN: 0-425-17345-3. 298pp.

Widowed Canadian literary agent Lyn Ravenshaw travels to Wales for Christmas (yep, it’s another paranormal Christmas romance). She suffers from dreams of her son, who has been dead for five years. Upon her arrival, a young widow named Elen latches onto her as the guardian angel of her baby, Stevie. Needless to say, this makes Lyn uncomfortable. Elen is convinced that her son is the mab y darogan – “son of prophecy” – a new version of Arthur Pendragon and Wales’ last real king, Owain Glyndwr (1349-1416), and that someone in the village finds this noble heritage a threat. Owain was an outlaw for most of his life, but he also kicked a lot of English butt, was a superlative leader (both militarily and politically) and died in hiding, never betrayed. Hence the legendary connection of Owain to Arthur, and the book’s title. Lyn thinks Elen is a little nuts and half the village thinks she’s a whore due to some rumours about the child not being her dead husband’s. But when Lyn’s dreams change to include them, she also starts to believe that Elen and Stevie are in real danger – but from whom?

Meanwhile, naturally, Lyn is finding a possible new love in the form of surly playwright, Gareth Gwyn Morgan.

I was frankly skeptical of Named of the Dragon, though it did have its attractions. It’s written in a traditional British romance style (pleasant-but-rather-useless heroine, ill-tempered hero, vivid side characters, slow pace, lots of atmosphere, not much resolution). It did win me over, though, to a certain extent due to some snarky Brit humour from Lyn’s co-workers and friends. There’s especially professional lush and Best Friend of the Heroine, children’s author Bridget Cooper, about whom one of Lyn’s co-workers says, “The last time I had lunch with her I ended up in Soho, doing most peculiar things with women’s clothing…I’m sure it’s all on video, somewhere.” Heh.

I also liked the book’s frank and multifaceted discussions of Welsh ethnicity and identity, and its unabashed infodumps about Welsh history. I’m quite curious about Welsh history and don’t mind learning more about it, so I was fine with the infodumps. My opinion about historical infodumps in historical romance is the same as about explicit sex scenes in erotica: they’re a major point – if not the point – of the book. Sure, you want to keep the pace moving in any story, but if bringing the action to a screeching halt for the history bothers you, then friend, you are in the wrong subgenre.

Unfortunately, Lyn isn’t nearly as fun as Bridget or any of the peripheral characters. She spends a great deal of time mooning about being depressed, getting on-site history lessons from Gareth and half-heartedly trying to save Elen and Stevie. Elen is just as bad. She’s not crazy so much as that romance stereotype of the “innocent” – in other words, a nitwit who fantasises a lot. It’s hard to blame her, though, considering her husband’s brother got her drunk and raped her the day her husband died. She’s now not sure who the father of her baby is (though one would argue that the odds are much better for her husband than the one-off with the brother). I wasn’t thrilled when the book passed this assault off as a mutual indiscretion. Ick. Fortunately, Bridget and Gareth are more fun. It’s hard not to like a leading man who has no problems slagging off the (apparently insufferable) dead husband of the woman he’s falling for in the interests of full disclosure, or putting off a woman he’s not attracted to (Bridget) by boring the crap out of her every time she pursues him. Go Gareth. You’re just the boot in the arse this book’s heroine needs.

Another problem is that, when it all comes right down to it, the mystery (such as it is) has very little to do with the historical mysteries and tragedies told throughout the book. It’s also about as “paranormal” as Scooby-Doo. Kearnsley never does make a commitment to what is going on (besides what turns out to be a domestic drama that’s not all that mysterious and has nothing to do with the heroine). Personally, I find that a cheat. Yes, I get that this is an older type of historical romance that probably predates a lot of the tropes we now expect in paranormal romance and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but give me something. Reviewers of Named of the Dragon on Amazon write the book up as historical romance fantasy. Considering the author apparently also wrote a much more paranormal book called “The Shadowy Horses“, that’s not surprising. I get that some authors like to be more circumspect than others, but if you promise me fantasy, I want to see fantasy, just as if the book is billed as a romance, I expect to see at least two people getting into some kind of romantic relationship.

Finally, I had a bit of a hard time with some of the conclusions drawn about Welsh identity. I get that the Welsh have major issues with immigration, seeing as how invaders from the Romans to the Vikings to 20th-century English bureaucrats have done their level best to destroy Welsh identity, both by colonisation and trying to force the Welsh to make English (or French or Latin) their first language. However, when you have a Welsh character saying (without comment from the author) that speaking the language isn’t a big deal (because he’s an anglophone), but that he sees the Vikings as recent immigrants, I’m thinking the gene pool’s getting a little shallow there. At least with tying Welsh identity to speaking the language, it’s something anybody living in Wales who wants to be Welsh can do, even if their ancestors come from, say, Pakistan or Hong Kong.

Still, it’s not a bad book if you like historical romance and quirky characters. And Arthurian completists will probably want to check it out, if only for all of the historical infodump about the Tudors’ origins and the Welsh theories on Arthur. But if you’re looking for action, a strong plot, or a strong fantasy element, you should probably go elsewhere.

You can find Named of the Dragon at Amazon.com.