Rayna the Dragonslayer by Cynthia Vespia

Front cover of Rayna the Dragonslayer by Cynthia VespiaVespia balances adherence to fantasy tropes with fresh details, creating an engaging tale of warriors and dragons that is neither slavish homage nor exercise in moral relativism.

Cursed before she was even born and orphaned by dragonfire, Rayna devoted her life to slaying dragons until it seemed there were none left. However, when an elite unit of the king’s guard are slain while following rumours that one remains, the king sends Prince Falkon to bring Rayna out of retirement. For Rayna, this could be the chance to finally face the dragon who cursed and then killed her family. But for Falkon defeating the dragon is a chance to finally earn his father’s respect and he isn’t going to let some commoner take that from him.

The plot starts as a classic fantasy quest to slay the monster that menaces the kingdom before becoming more complex and nuanced as Vespia reveals that people are trying to manipulate both Rayna and the wider situation. However, while the King and his dynasty are not shining beacons of purity and the supposed monsters are not unalloyed beings of darkness, this is at its heart a book about a heroic protagonist facing evil rather than a world entirely of shades of moral grey.

Vespia’s world is a number of familiar tropes without becoming stereotypical. Thus the technological level is ‘generic medieval’ but food and many other matters vary much more between neighbouring counties and social strata than many classic fantasy settings. Similarly, while magic is viewed as bad, there is no immensely powerful pseudo-Catholic religion preaching about it being the tool of pseudo-Satan. This produces an engaging balance of the familiar and the fresh.

While seeded by the commandment of a king and featuring a prince as one of the leading characters, the novel contains little international or even inter-provincial politics, instead unfolding through a mix of fast-paced action and interpersonal conflicts. After a number of reversals and revelations that might be surprising but are not unfeasible in context, the major personal and setting arcs have been brought to either a conclusion or a clear milestone. Thus it is definitely a complete book; however, enough of the plot remains unresolved or only brought to temporary relief that it is clearly the first volume of a series rather than a stand-alone work.

Vespia’s narration is pleasingly free of Fantasy Name Syndrome, with names and terms that are not common real-world ones being both easy to pronounce and clear from context. However, in contrast to many fantasy novels, Vespia’s deriving of a mediaeval-esque tone to fit the setting has clear signs of being rooted in a modern American dialect; while there is obviously no correct grammar, syntax, or even language for a world that does not exist, readers who unconsciously assume that classic fantasy will be told in some flavour of British might find some of the word choices or phrasings feel slightly strange or wrong.

Rayna is a well-crafted protagonist, the fact she is a woman neither being her key defining feature nor having no meaningful impact on her character and experiences. The curse she bears manifests as an unnatural looking eye and flickers of fury, but also allows her to wreath her sword in flame; thus, rather than a simple binary, it creates a complex web of stigma and advantage. While very definitely cast in the heroic mould, she is realistically flawed and the character traits and abilities that allow her to overcome some challenges also blind her to opportunities to avoid others. Thus, while a protagonist who is female and strong, she is not a simplistic Strong Female Protagonist.

The supporting cast are pleasingly nuanced, acting as one expects in classic fantasy but having individual drives and biases that cause them to each have a differing mix of perspectives on Rayna’s social status, sex, skill, and curse, and each display differing levels of selfishness or loyalty.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. I recommend it to readers seeking a fantasy tale that is neither a stale copy of classic fantasy tales nor a subversion of the archetypal struggle of hero vs monster.

I received a free copy from the author with a request for a fair review.


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