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Bitterwood (Dragon Age) Mass Market Paperback – June 26, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In the distant future—year 1070 of the Dragon Age, to be exact—Earth has been commandeered by dragons, who subject their human inferiors to lives of misery and squalor, either as slaves or pets. Human Bant Bitterwood, consumed with thoughts of vengeance against the dragons he believes murdered his family, goes on a dragon-killing spree that makes him a folk hero among the oppressed human populace. When Bitterwood slays the dragons' crown prince, Bodiel, their king vows to exterminate humankind—the only way he can be certain of victory over Bitterwood. To that end, the king enlists his murderous brother Blasphiel to build a city that will serve as humanity's abattoir. Maxey's world is stunningly imaginative, a landscape both familiar and alien, and packed with thoughtful treats for readers. Skillfully examining themes of faith, martyrdom and heroism, Maxey maintains an unflagging believability even while borrowing some of the most generic elements from science fiction and fantasy. The dragons are wonderfully written, as is the tormented hero; it is almost a shame that the story is so self-contained, as many readers will pine for a whole series of Dragon Age titles. (July)
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About the Author
James Maxey is winner of the Phobos Writing Contest and author of Nobody Gets The Girl. He has attended Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp, and studied under Harlan Ellison. He lives in Chapel Hill, NC
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Top Customer Reviews
Bitterwood features anthropomorphic dragons but cast in a villainous light as the rulers of an oppressive kingdom that keeps humans as slaves or pets. Some dragons do not like the treatment of humans however and rebel against the status-quo. At the same time, the main character, Bitterwood is a human fighting against the dragons as a rough and tumble guerilla-fighter. Sounds like an interesting set up, right? But unfortunately this is a poorly written novel that makes me wonder how it even got published in the first place.
The story begins with a prologue. The titular Bant Bitterwood is a teenager at this point. His village is holding a yearly ritual in which, in order to appease their goddess, everyone gets naked and all the women are required to have intercourse with any man who desires it. Yep, you heard right. The book opens with a pagan orgy and Bitterwood is a horny teenager. Naturally, he and his girlfriend Recanna try to hook up however their love is forbidden (as all great fantasy romances are required by law to be) because he's not of age. Nevermind the fact she too is still a teenager but apparently only "men" (18 and older) are permitted to have intercourse. Next thing you know, Bitterwood's vicious older brother comes and beats him up and the book explains him as always having been a bully to his younger brother. He then decides to have sex with Recanna, whether she wants it or not. That's right. The priestesses of this agrarian-goddess cult decided it was fine for older men to have sex with any female, pubescent or otherwise, even if it results in rape.
But then!--and this is where it gets really good--a mysterious stranger ten feet tall with a huge black dog arrives unexpectedly, burns down the temple housing the goddess and chops her carved likeness in half with an axe. He then says, I kid you not: THOU SHALT HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME.THOU SHALT NOT MAKE UNTO THEE ANY GRAVEN IMAGE, OR ANY LIKENESS OF ANY THING THAT IS IN HEAVEN ABOVE, OR THAT IS IN THE WATER UNDER THE EARTH.
Oh boy. S*** just got real...
All the men, including Bitterwood's abusive older brother, begin to attack this stranger who defiled their temple, at which point the stranger chops them up and his enormous dog rips into them like a terrier with a rat. Bitterwood (the main character who is like totally the good guy whom we should root for) watches all of this with grim satisfaction, repressing whatever guilty feelings he has because his brother was mean to him and about to rape his girl-friend. Of course, rapist or not, bravely attacking this intruder head on is something his brother should be commended for, even if he is an obvious straw-character. Bitterwood however feels nothing for his home which he grew up in or his family and friends. He accepts this strangers brutality and then allows him to marry him to his girlfriend (because the stranger is also a prophet and supposedly has the authority to wed people on the spot). The chapter ends with: This is how Bant Bitterwood found God.
Once you've gotten over the initial shock of discovering you're reading a Christian-Fantasy, you may ask yourself: "How am I supposed to sympathize with the main character when he himself seemingly has no sympathy?" The opening to this book reads like a disturbed teenager's power fantasy. It's like Eragon, but minus Paolini's notoriously obnoxious raging atheism and instead with obnoxious bible-thumping. It's unsettling to say the least. Casually watching murder with no feelings of guilt could either be the symptoms of a sociopath or a coward. Either way, it's not a good setup. Why does he even keep his given surname if he feels nothing, NOTHING for his home or family? And yet it's the title of the book no less.
But would you believe it actually gets worse?
The next chapter follows with an aged hunter whom we soon infer is a much older Bitterwood who got trained in the interim years and is now a badass with mad skills. He's just killed a sky-dragon, which the book describes as being a scholarly, civilized breed of dragon...and he's eating's his tongue for dinner and riffling through his belongings. We only know from the book's description that he's a rebel fighting against an oppressive regime of dragons but if we didn't have that context to go on from the outset he would look like a murderer shamelessly cannibalizing his victims and pillaging their possessions. Stupider than that is the way in which it describes the dragon as having died with "-a single arrow, expertly placed on the underside of the jaw, the iron tip coming to rest in the center of the dragon's brain." Oi vey, really? "The beast had fallen from the air like a suddenly dead thing." Really? The beast didn't fall from the air like, oh I don't know...a sack of potatoes? No! It fell like "a suddenly dead thing!" However, such riveting prose is the least of the book's problems, for we now come to an even bigger problem the book has: purple prose.
If there is a God then may he deliver us from purple prose, Amen.
"The hunter paused to examine a leather-bound book, the linen paper a pristine white, the opening pages covered with sketches and notes about flowers. The drawings were meticulous. Rendered in dark walnut ink, the flowers had a life and beauty. The blossoms swelled on the page seductively enough to tempt bees."
This is an actual paragraph from the book! If that wasn't appalling enough the next paragraph gets worse.
"The hunter ripped out the pages and fed them to the crackling fire. The paper writhed as if alive, curling, crumbling into large black leaves that wafted upward with the smoke, the inky designs still faintly visible until they vanished in the dark sky."
Yuck! Purple prose galore. But worse than that is the fact this now dead dragon was, for all appearances, an educated naturalist. Yet Bitterwood gives no thought to destroying his intellectual creations and eating him for dinner. The very prose itself seems to revel in the destruction of the dead dragon's pretty drawings with sadistic, almost cathartic relish. The dragon was created to be sacrificed for the sake of hubris. Why am I supposed to root for this "hero" again? Oppression alone does not justify the arbitrary slaughter of the innocent!
The next chapter then goes on with some interesting descriptions of dragons gathered in a building to witness a ceremony. They have interesting features, the king and queen are both relaxing on pillows and the queen dragon is wearing perfume. All my interest wans however when the book describes an asinine sounding ritual in which the two dragon princes must compete for the "privilege" of being exiled so they may one day come back and claim the throne by overthrowing their father...if they don't get killed by him in the process, that is.
This is only the first twenty or so pages and already I want to stop reading. The opening with the "prophet" murdering an entire village for worshiping the wrong god could have easily been used in a fantasy story with an anti-Christian bent and it would have come off as shallow and petty for painting such a harsh generalization. As it is, it's frankly disturbing that we're expected to take this seriously. And don't tell me this all supposed to be setup for Bitterwood's tragic character-arch or something because I shouldn't have to slog through another hundred more pages to get to the meat of the story and be properly invested. The book's writing does not make up for it's horrid story-telling either. The prose is bad, the dialogue is wooden, and it fails the all important show-don't-tell aspect of writing by telling us everything rather than showing it. It's a shame because I really would have like to have gotten into this but with every sentence I found myself wanting to chuck the book in disgust for its sheer lack of literary merit. To reiterate an earlier statement, how it even got published is a wonder.
**Edit Oct. 16th, 2014** So according to other people's reviews this novel does indeed have some kind of anti-Christain bias, despite my initial belief this was a Christian Fantasy. The thing is, writing the novel like that doesn't make sense because it seems purposely misleading, like a low-blow to the reader's intelligence regardless of what they believe. I'm not Christian so I don't read Christian-fantasy, but I would feel sorry for any Christian reader mislead into reading this only to have their faith insulted in the most hyperbolic way possible. Also, even though I don't read Christian-centered stories I don't mind reading books where the main-character is Christian, just as long as their faith isn't shoved down my throat and their actions are consistent with their own beliefs.
Further, this story's plot also seems to become more grandiose with inexplicable sci-fi elements involving genetic engineering, nano-machines and, for some reason, Atlantis. For more on that, be sure to peruse the other one-star reviews of this book.
I really wanted to like this book. I love dragons and am always curious to see how different authors interpret them, and a book with an entire world ruled by the great beasts, even if they were villainous, promised to be an exciting experience. And I'm a sucker for an epic fantasy, with a hero striving to save the world and restore freedom to the oppressed. (Cliche, I know, but I have my guilty pleasures and my stories I enjoy whether or not they've been done before...)
Sadly, while "Bitterwood" showed great promise, it failed to deliver. It's a mess of a story with unlikable characters and a plot that ultimately left me feeling betrayed.
In a world where dragons reign supreme and humans are merely regarded as slaves, pets, and prey, the sun dragon Albekizan rules with an iron claw, subjugating all humans within his kingdom. But a lone hero stands against him -- Bant Bitterwood, also known as the Ghost Who Kills, a ruthless hunter who slays dragons and somehow never gets caught. When Bitterwood kills Albekizan's son Bodiel, the king vows in his rage and grief to destroy all humans... and he releases a sadistic killer, Blasphet the Murder God, from his prison to aid him in his bloodthirsty quest. It's up to a motley assortment of humans -- including Bitterwood, a young sorceress raised by a sky-dragon, a former pet human to a sun-dragon noble, and a runaway girl and her pet pig -- as well as a traitorous dragon sorcerer and Albekizan's second, exiled son, to stop the bloodshed and save humanity.
This premise held a lot of promise, but in the end it feels like a mess. I know it's common for epic fantasies to pack a lot of characters into their pages, but here there were so many characters that switched points of view that after awhile I couldn't tell which ones were meant to be important to the plot and which ones were secondary. Zeeky, the runaway child, in particular felt largely useless except as a morality pet of sorts to Bitterwood, though I daresay she's one of the more likable characters in the book.
Which leads me to another flaw -- the characters are thoroughly unlikable. Bitterwood is a sociopath, Jandra the sorceress starts out likable but becomes selfish and petulant midway through the book after a particular revelation (some anger at said revelation is understandable, but her reaction seems pretty heartless even in light of what she's learned), and of all the dragon characters, they're either cartoonishly evil or just bland and flat. Come to think of it, even the obviously-evil ones are pretty flat and bland -- they're given little motivation to be evil, especially Blasphet who feels like "evil for evil's sake." Seriously, when the dragon characters literally eat kittens and water their gardens with human blood, you know the author's not going for subtlety.
The writing in this book, while servicable, falls into purple prose quite a bit. I appreciate good descriptive writing, but here it felt like the author was packing in useless description for no other reason than he could. Do we really need two or three paragraphs to describe a single book that has no impact on the plot? And do we really need graphic descriptions of blood, urine, and feces falling out of people's bodies during battle scenes? Seriously, there's so much description of fecal matter during battle scenes (do the characters defecate themselves in fear or are they just full of crap?) that it makes me wonder if James Maxey has some sort of scat fetish...
Also, there's a weird and ultimately unnecessary religious streak in this book, in the form of the seemingly-invincible preacher Hezekiah who serves as Bitterwood's mentor. People have complained that this book has an anti-Christian undertone, but to me it's less anti-Christian and more like a ridiculous and unnecessary side-plot. The religious element could have been left out entirely without hurting the book any.
My biggest beef with this book (SPOILERS FOLLOW) is that it feels like a bait-and-switch -- its cover and description scream "fantasy," but partway through we learn that this book is actually science fiction. Everything that can be attributed to magic, from the sorceress' spells to the invincible preacher, turns out to be highly advanced science. Even the creation of the dragons turns out to be the result of genetic experimentation that got completely out of hand. The sci-fi bent to the book came completely out of nowhere for me, and it left me feeling betrayed and lied to. Some books can make the switch from fantasy to sci-fi well, such as Sharon Shinn's "Samaria" series or Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonriders of Pern," but in those cases the science-fiction elements are foreshadowed well in advance, and the eventual revelation doesn't feel like such a shocking swerve. Here, it just feels forced, and I wish there had been some hints beforehand.
I would give this book one-and-a-half stars for at least not being mind-numbingly horrible and for not ending on a cliffhanger like many Kindle freebies, but Amazon doesn't allow for half-stars. So I'll settle for two stars, which I feel is still being generous. This book is a lot of promise that fails to deliver, and in the end an unpleasant read that left me feeling cheated and misled. Avoid.
If it weren't for the strange biblical side plot this would be a much better book. I love the idea of sentient dragons in charge of a world where humans are a lesser being. It gets way too odd with the robot man from a thousand years in the past who is programmed to bring Jesus to the future, but who goes on murderous rampages wiping out entire villages when the inhabitants don't immediately believe in Him. The present day in this story is like medieval times, but it's actually a thousand years after a group of "chosen" humans who figured out the secret to immortality decided to sequester themselves in Atlanta (or Atlantis, it's referred to as both *shrug*) and leave the riff raff to be enslaved by dragons and killed off. The dragons, BTW, are a genetic engineering feat gone wrong. There's a lot of "technology is bad" and "gmo's are bad" and "you're going to hell" interspersed throughout the book. It's too bad, because the premise is strong and this could have been an excellent series. I however won't be reading the following books.