Friday, 19 September 2014

Shatterwing by Donna Maree Hanson

Shatterwing by Donna Maree Hanson is the first book in the Dragon Wine series. It's a secondary world fantasy with dragons (as you may gather from the series title) and more astronomy that we usually see in a fantasy book. I've previously reviewed a couple of Donna's books, Rayessa and the Space Pirates, and Bespelled. What strikes me most about Donna as a writer is how flexible she can be. These three books have very little in common stylistically or even thematically, yet she pulls them off.
Dragon wine could save them. Or bring about their destruction.

Since the moon shattered, the once peaceful and plentiful world has become a desolate wasteland. Factions fight for ownership of the remaining resources as pieces of the broken moon rain down, bringing chaos, destruction and death.

The most precious of these resources is dragon wine – a life-giving drink made from the essence of dragons. But the making of the wine is perilous and so is undertaken by prisoners. Perhaps even more dangerous than the wine production is the Inspector, the sadistic ruler of the prison vineyard who plans to use the precious drink to rule the world.

There are only two people that stand in his way. Brill, a young royal rebel who seeks to bring about revolution, and Salinda, the prison's best vintner and possessor of a powerful and ancient gift that she is only beginning to understand. To stop the Inspector, Salinda must learn to harness her power so that she and Brill can escape, and stop the dragon wine from falling into the wrong hands.
The blurb is a bit deceptive in that it only covers about half the book. And I mean that in the most literal sense; part two breaks from the first set of characters to follow a new group of characters. It could almost have been published as two separate books and the structure really highlights how this is only the first book in the series. Having said that, the first section ended in a fairly conclusive way that didn't leave me so desperate to get back to those characters that I couldn't pay attention to the new characters. If anything, I'd argue that the first part was a bit more conclusive than the second, which ended on a minor cliffhanger.

But enough about structure. The most obvious thing to note about the content of this book that's not necessarily obvious is that it's dark fantasy. Dark as in brutal or "grimdark". There is rape and there is violence. Most of the worst rape happens off the page, but there's enough on the page that if you don't want to read about rape (or molestation or brutal beatings), then probably give this series a miss. The characters can be more or less divided into main characters and other "good guys" and "horrible men that don't think women are real people". And, I suppose, miscellaneous bystanders who are afraid of witchcraft.

I really enjoyed the story but there were times when the brutality got a bit much for me. Mainly this was towards the end of part one where Salinda, our first main character, is being brutally tortured. It's not that it's not relevant to the plot, but it wasn't fun to read (nor, I think, should it have been). Then, in part two, I was probably a bit over-invested in a new main character, Laidan, not being raped and it was a nail-biter for a while there. (I won't spoil which way it went.)

Anyway, the main thrust of Shatterwing is setting up the world and the overarching plot for the series. The worldbuilding is quite nice, with two moons in the sky, one of which broke up hundreds of years ago (called the "Shatterwing" because it's shattered and looks like a wing). There's some historical background that remains mysterious for the time being and I look forward to learning more about that in subsequent books. There's also the matter of the dragon wine, which has magical properties, and which is apparently the main thing keeping the human population alive. How did this come to be? I'm not sure, but I'm looking forward to finding out.

Shatterwing is not for everyone and I wouldn't recommend it to people who wish to avoid reading about violence. However, I would recommend it to fans of dark and grim fantasy. The world may have dragons that eat people, but the real monsters here are other people.

4 / 5 stars

First published: September 2014, Momentum Books
Series: Dragon Wine book 1 of ? (possibly 4?)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Disclaimer: Author is a friend but I've endeavoured to write an unbiased review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

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