What is it about dragons that so fascinate us? In our earliest stories, they were the embodiment of evil; their reptilian features exaggerated so that they became substitutes for the snake that offered temptation to Eve and brought about the fall from grace.
In every story of good triumphing over evil, purity over darkness, the dragon has taken a place of honour as the literal snake in the grass. Who hasn’t heard of at least one story of a prince rescuing a princess from the bestial clutches of the dragon? At the very least, dragons have come to represent the evil that greed for wealth, at the expense of all other things, can bring about.
It’s only been in recent years that the dragon has undergone rehabilitation by authors. Revising our depictions of them as the personifications of evil, to beings deserving of our reverence and not our revulsion. Anne McCaffrey and her Dragonriders of Pern series, (whose first title, Dragonflight was published in 1968) was probably the first major reclamation project for the dragon. There may have been other books or popular stories before them that painted dragons in a positive light, but as far as I know, these were the first ones that postulated a whole society based around the dragon.
It’s easy to see how it would be possible to both worship and fear dragons, and for the exact same attributes. There’s their size to start with, which is usually massive, their ability to fly, and of course that whole fire-breathing thing. Individually, those are all pretty intimidating, but finding it in one package, you’re either going to run away screaming or prostrate yourself in front of it in the hopes of it not biting you in half.
While there is no doubt that dragons will continue to find their home in the fantasy genre of literature, more and more sophisticated devices are being created to introduce them into the storylines. Authors are continuing to expand their role beyond that of hero or villain to something far more complex, and suited to the nature of this beast that has come out of our collective unconscious down through the ages.
Touched By Venom, the opening book to Janine Cross’s new series, The Dragon Temple Saga, is a foray into this newer territory. Ms. Cross has created a world where the dragons are both the focal point for human existence, and the tool for a religious elite to exert control over a conquered people.
The country of Malacar has been under the thumb of the Emperor of the Archipelago for generations by the time Zarq is born. She and her fellow natives of the Malacar are kept in line by the doctrines of the Temple of the Dragons.
No person but the aristocracy are permitted to own a dragon, and the only people who are aristocracy are those originally from the Empire, thus ensuring that all others are kept subservient. Every aspect of their lives is dictated to them by the Temple’s rules as pertaining to a person’s responsibility to the dragons.
Being born a woman has given Zarq an even greater disadvantage as women are not even considered worthy of their own names after being “claimed” by a man, and are thereafter known only by their relationship to that man. Woman are not permitted to sleep touching the ground in case any of their impurities stain the holy earth where dragons walk.
Early in her life, Zarq learns the truth of how little a woman is worth when her sister is sold to another group as a sex toy without their mother even being warned. It is her mother’s desperate attempts to reclaim her daughter that also teach Zarq the consequences of stepping even slightly out of line
Due to transgressions her mother commits, Zarq’s father is torn to pieces in front of her by four aristocrats goading a dragon into a state of such fury that he rips him apart with his claws. Zarq and her mother are thean exiled and forced to try to survive on their own.
Just to make things a little more difficult for them both, her mother is a member of the original tribe of inhabitants of the area, a mysterious people who existed even before the first wave of conquerors came, who were in turn subjugated by the Emperor’s forces. So not only are they women, but the lowest of the lowest of the races living under the rule of the Temple of the Dragon.
Despised, hated, and feared for their strange abilities and magic, they have little actual contact with their oppressors, preferring the dangers of the jungle to those of civilization. Occasionally they are captured and put to work with the rest of people, but they are so despised that those who can, disguise any overt signs that will distinguish them from their fellows.
But it is this exile that will bring about the two most important events in young Zarq’s life. She is ritually circumcised and introduced to the joys and horrors of dragon venom. Her mother and her ended their flight at a temple dedicated to tending to the needs of bull dragons that can no longer mate.
The Temple dictates who can do what in all matters, and in matters concerning the care of bull dragons, the restrictions are very clear. You either have to be an aristocrat, a dragon master, an apprentice to a dragon master, or unsexed to tend to them.
It’s while learning to tend to the needs of the bull dragons that Zarq is also introduced to the hallucinogenic and soporific properties of the venom produced by all dragons, but in the bull is far more potent. It will turn out that her ritual “unsexing” and the addiction she forms for dragon venom will be factors that influence the balance of her journey in this first instalment of the Dragon Temple Saga
Touched By Venom can be taken literally to mean that Zarq’s life is forever marked by stain of dragon venom, or it can be taken as an allusion to her developing anger through out the book at the injustices she sees around her in society. Each of them, though, are what propel her actions towards the final climax of this first installment.
Janine Cross has written a brilliant depiction of a despotic theocracy whose sole purpose is to insure that a very few people have power over the majority. Throughout the book we are shown how a people can be cowed through fear, doctrine, and the promise of some minor improvements in their lot into, not only being submissive, but also be willing accomplices in their own oppression.
In exchange for a few tawdry honours, or slight improvements in their pathetic existence, people will turn their brothers over to the authorities, obey the letter of the law, all the while knowing it will result in their death, and gladly live a life of wretched poverty believing when they are told that no other option exists.
The dragons themselves are creatures both fearsome and commonplace. Treated like horses and cattle by the aristocrats, each of which have a breeding colony either serviced by their own bull, or by purchasing stud rights from another family. Since only bulls caught in the wild are allowed to be used for stud, and you are not allowed to replace your bull until it has passed out of your hands, there are plenty of times when the latter will occur.
Janine Cross’s writing has a gritty reality to it that is not often been seen in fantasy until recently, but is becoming more prevalent. The characters are poor, and not the noble poor we are so used to, but people so desperate to survive that they can’t even afford to dream of anything beyond getting through the day and hoping maybe tomorrow will be a little easier.
There’s a mystery lurking at the heart of this series for which Ms. Cross has planted little clues for those keen enough to see. But since we are also seeing them through the eyes of Zarq, we have to make a decision as to how accurate they are. Are they just the pathetic hopes of a desperate person clinging to a dream of revenge for all the wrongs she’s witnessed, or are they real?
But through Zarq, we see there is something more to the dragons than just cattle to be bred for the pleasure and status of the aristocrats. There is a hint of sentience to them, which makes them just as much slaves in her mind as she is.
Like all good first books in a series, Touched By Venom lines up the protagonists and antagonists for us, and leaves far more unanswered, and even unasked questions, than answered questions in its wake.
What is truly wonderful is none of the questions are spelt right out for you. It’s only after reading the book and letting it soak in that you even start to make some connections that allow you to wonder about certain other things, which then, of course, turns in to another question. To me, that is the mark of a good storyteller, someone who paints a picture for you to see, but doesn’t point her finger at the important parts. Janine Cross trusts her readers to work things out on their own. I’m already looking forward to book two in the Dragon Temple Saga based on what I found in book one.