All the usual disclaimers will follow this review.
I'm not sure what drew me to this book. The cover? Maybe. The title alone wouldn't do it, as there are plenty of dragon stories. But I've never read any steam punk at all, so the genre wasn't any great attraction either. But something caught my attention and so I downloaded the free copy from Amazon.
There's so much about this book I shouldn't like. The present tense narrative for one thing. It bugs me no end. I can never get into a present tense story. Well, not never any more, because I got snared into this one.
Then there's the distant, omniscient narrator. Again, normally it bugs me to be so isolated from the action. But if there's a comparison to be made here, it's to William Goldman's The Princess Bride. Not to the version by S. Morgenstern, which is the original, but Goldman's narrative is that same kind of distant, uninvolved recounting that is done in just such a je ne sais quoi perfect detachment that it creates the contradictory magic. By creating distance, it pulls you in closer.
There's no viewpoint character, and precious little of the typical world-building description that's so essential to fantasy of any stripe. But here again, the so much less is so much more. The fantastical elements are simply there, and totally taken for granted in a way that makes them more real because they don't need all the world-building description.
I don't like stories that don't have a point, a theme, a moral if you will, that builds from the beginning and carries the action through to the end. I want to know what kind of action is going to unfold and I want to have some indication how the story is going to end. Nothing bums me out more than unsatisfying endings the get plopped in without any build-up. Surprise endings are one thing, but if they're done right, they really aren't surprises. The build-up is subtle rather than contrived, if that makes sense.
But The 19 Dragons doesn't have any clearly defined conflict. And even when I'd finished it, and the ending was satisfying but hadn't completely resolved all the issues, I wasn't sure what the theme was. And it didn't matter.
When I was in high school, a bazillion years ago, my best friend and I argued whether poetry was supposed to be read as printed or read as spoken. She based her belief in the printed version on Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" with its visual impression. I disagreed, because I felt even with the artificial image of that particular poem, the words, the rhymes, the rhythms required the spoken and the heard expression and impression for the full effect of the poet's intent, with the visual expression almost immaterial. And normally I would take a mostly opposite tack with fiction: the power is in the words as read, not spoken, with any visual effects of the text completely irrelevant.
But there are printed acrobatics with the words in The 19 Dragons that are pertinent and delightful and exciting in ways that have probably been used many many times in children's literature, but rarely for adult fiction. Contrived? Oh, probably. Pretentious? Maybe. Effective? Definitely! Charming? Delightfully!
It's short and it won't take you long to read. It's rather like a fairy tale, fun and dark and frightening and scary and mysterious. A second reading will probably reveal all kinds of gems of genius (or maybe flaws) but the first time through is all excitement and danger and wonder.
Disclaimers: I obtained this book when it was offered free on Amazon. I do not know the author nor have I had any communication with her whatsoever regarding this book or my review of it. I am an author of historical romances.