There’s something iconic, in a niche sort of way, about a truckdriver-turned-hero. Okay, so something being both iconic and niche is probably a paradox, but anyway... I guess it’s more the idea that an average American guy who does something as everyday as driving a big rig on a redundant route can become the hero of a story. That’s what is iconic – the relatable character who’s nothing special, really. The trucker part is niche. But it’s a premise that got me interested!
I read the first two books of this series more or less over the month of December. Note my Christmas candle and the fun dragon-themed beer from a local brewery. :-)
Tucker Kenworthy (yes, even his name screams average truck driver, and if the puns in there make you shake your head and sigh, well, they probably make him do the same regarding what has seemed to be his destiny since his birth) never really wanted to drive an 18-wheeler for a living, but life circumstances more or less funneled him into it, and we begin the story with a man who does his job out of obligation. He must help support his mother, whose mental and emotional state has slipped since the death of her husband and then the injuries of her son, which have led him to follow in his father’s job rather than pursuing a dream of an athletic career. Tucker doesn’t particularly enjoy his life, but he’s not the kind of guy to balk at his responsibilities. This is one of the things I find most endearing about him as a character: he’s steady, reliable, stable, responsible. And if he’s not ambitious, well, at least he’s an all-around good guy, and ultimately, that’s a great trait to have even when it seems boring.
But Tucker’s life changes dramatically when his routine route is interrupted. He finds Ravinna, a girl on the side of the road, weak and helpless, and as he tries to help her, he is drawn into a quest to slay a dragon. Yes, the drama of the story picks up here with such an unlikely twist, and Tucker, against his normal judgment, follows her into the woods and ends up passing through a portal into another world called Aristonia.
This is what kept me reading: the combination of the two worlds. Tucker is an average American in a fantasy world. I am not typically a reader of fantasy novels—while I appreciate their role and admire the talent of the authors who write them, I often get bogged down in the foreign names and the unknown worlds until I am lost. That is why this fantasy series appeals to me: it combines reality and fantasy. Throughout the book, the story alternates between Tucker and Ravinna in Aristonia and people back in the real world who are concerned about Tucker’s disappearance.
At first, I found it hard to believe that Tucker would leave his own world so easily, without a word to his mother, his boss, or his friends. However, Ravinna is attractive to him on multiple levels, and I am left with the belief that because of her other-worldliness, she had a kind of power over him at first.
My favorite character was probably Flint, Tucker’s friend and mentor trucker, who actively searches for him. The budding romance between Flint and Karla, who is a caregiver to Tucker’s mom, was a sweet touch that served to ground Flint as a more solid person by the end of the story. For those who prefer the fantasy aspects of a story, maybe this wouldn’t be their favorite part, but I enjoyed the switching between the two worlds.
Tucker experiences much growth over the first book of this series, too. In deviating from his normal life, he discovers adventure and a greater purpose while not losing sight of the importance of his role in caring for his mother. His quest in Aristonia boosts his confidence in himself, and he and Ravinna begin to see a possible future together, although their separate worlds are going to keep that from becoming reality right now. One thing might leave the reader confused: it is never fully explained why Tucker was specifically chosen for the role of dragon-slayer from all the men in the world.
The good dragons in this book show the readers that sacrifice is more powerful than brute strength and violence. Ravinna’s strong will threatens to interfere with their plans at the end, but the Christian themes of good conquering evil come through (think Aslan’s sacrifice in the Narnia series).
One criticism I have is that the book could have been edited better to catch punctuation mistakes, but as I have continued reading further into this series, I can also say that it improves as you get into the next book.
The second book in the series, Peak Dragon Uprising, takes us to the other side of the world. A dragon named Tianshi Guang that has come through a portal into Hong Kong and has existed peacefully hidden in a mountain cavern there has begun to awake, with evil intent. Ravinna re-enters our world to find Tucker and take him to subdue the beast before Hong Kong is thrown into a panic.
This books weaves in local lore of dragons and how the people there tell the stories but don’t actually believe dragons were ever real, for the most part. The young protagonist of this book, Winnie, does believe in dragons, and she wants to befriend this one. Lacking acceptance from her parents and peers, she is easily drawn in even when the dragon’s tendencies for evil are obvious to us. Winnie is befriended by Singe, a boy whose father has power as a gang leader. Singe was one of my favorite characters. He was a true friend to Winnie, and he came across as very real to me.
In this story, we learn that Tucker’s family has had an unknown involvement with the dragons for many years. A stone found and given to his mother by Tucker is actually a blood stone from a dragon, and its powers are having a negative impact on Tucker’s mom, Nance, as the dragon regains strength and followers. This gives Tucker an even bigger reason for following Ravinna this time – conquering this dragon will restore his mother’s health, in addition to preventing the world from having an evil dragon unleashed upon it.
The conversion of Tianshi Guang from evil to good at the end of this book shows the power of love and forgiveness. Winnie’s devotion to the dragon softens her heart, and the benevolence of the good dragons in Aristonia comes through again as they heal others both physically and spiritually. Don’t think these dragons are soft pushovers, however. The themes in the book are clear that betrayals are not just forgotten and that temporal effects of sin remain, even though forgiveness and second chances are always available – but one must use one’s free will to ask for these things. I thought these themes were one of the best parts of the story.
My other favorite thing was how the reader is immersed in the setting. Most of the book takes place in Hong Kong, not Aristonia. The author’s familiarity with this location comes through in descriptions of the crowds, the architecture, the landscape, and the foods. This brought an authentic feel to the story. I am a fan of geography and setting, so this appealed to me as a reader who enjoys learning more about real places. Again, the mixture of reality with fantasy is what pulled me in, because realistic fiction is more my cup of tea.
Tucker and Ravinna’s growing romance will be met with an abruptness at the story’s end, leaving the reader wondering what will happen when book three comes out. By this point, we are left rooting for them, as we have seen how Tucker’s steadiness and reliability are a perfect balance to Ravinna’s more impulsive and take-action personality.
I was privileged to be a beta reader for Book Three, Bohemian Dragon Awakening, but I will not give anything away other than to say it is another installation in the series that combines the real world (this time set in the Czech Republic) with fantastical elements and dragon lore.
The following is a snippet of my fiction writing with ties to the Christmas season. It takes place on January 1, 2011, with three characters attending the Mass for today's solemnity inside the chapel of a monastery:
Father Fogarty, the old Irish priest who usually said Mass for the brothers, began with the sign of the cross. Seth held a missal open so his mother and Tess, standing on either side of him, could follow along with the words he’d memorized by now. When they sat for the first reading, Seth finally dared to look up.
The angels were there, innumerable heavenly hosts. His breath caught in his throat as Seth devoured the visual feast, feeling them through all his other senses, and he understood that what he had told his mother about as a child was what was happening to him now—he was feeling the angels, and more than just the glimpse he’d received at the cathedral twice now, more than the fleeting visions blessing him on occasion here in the monastery chapel, but he knew with a profound firmness he was going to notice them for the rest of his life when he entered any sacred space of a Catholic sanctuary. He dipped his head in humility and closed his eyes at the sight that was too rich for prolonged consumption.
During the gospel reading, Seth noticed Tess’s gaze concentrated on the nativity angel perched on the roof of the stable. Father Fogarty finished with the statement that ‘he was named Jesus, the name given to him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.’
As they sat and Father began his homily, Theresa leaned close and whispered in Seth’s ear, “They sure focus a lot on angels this time of year.” The opening hymn had been Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.
He nodded and swept his gaze across the ceiling above the altar, thinking that Catholics talked about angels all year long. And this was why—they were here constantly, at every Mass, and alongside their charges as guardians every moment of every day. He wondered how he could even explain to her in words how it was all intertwined in him, running through his life, through the ups and downs, his failures and joys. Seth swallowed and squeezed her hand where their laced fingers rested on top of her pregnant belly.
Mary had been a humble, poor girl, the priest was explaining. Her prominence in the religious life of Catholics was due to one thing, he said: Mary had said yes to God. ‘Be it done unto me according to your word.’ She’d suffered much to care for the holy child entrusted to her. Seth felt the profound reality that the woman sitting at his side was accepting a difficult cross, too. Their life would be full of hardships but contain great happiness, too. He saw Tess studying the figure of Mary tucked inside the stable alongside the baby Jesus in the manger, with Joseph leaning protectively over both, and she fingered the Holy Family necklace at her throat. Seth hoped he knew what she was thinking: that this was a mother who was so poor that she gave birth in a stable, and then had to flee from an evil king who wanted her child dead. Seth’s heart raced at the thought of Ace’s threats to their unborn baby, the mournful words of Coventry Carol that they’d sung at the Mass for the Holy Innocents running through him, and he felt dizzy at what could have happened the other night. He dipped his head and gulped for a breath of air.
Tess leaned closer to him. “Are you okay?” she murmured.
Seth nodded. He was okay—now.
As the priest prepared the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist and all sang the hymn What Child is This, Charlene turned to her son with a smile. “I like how Catholics celebrate Christmas as a whole season. It’s not such a letdown when all this is still happening a week after December 25th. Maybe I’ll leave the tree up a little longer, after all.”
On his other side, Theresa put her arm gently over Seth’s sore shoulders. “We know what child this is,” she whispered, rubbing her belly. “He’s ours. I can’t believe that you and me have been trusted with something so amazing. I can never be as good a mother as she was.” Her eyes rimmed with tears as she pondered the manger scene.
“But Mary needed him in order to be a good mom, Tess.” The words came from Seth without hesitation, and he assumed it was something he’d assimilated from all the prayers and talks with the brothers over the past many months. “He still had to save her. And this baby has helped save us.” He dipped his head. “Thank God.” His last words shuddered through his lips in a whisper that had him wanting to fall to his knees, and the angels’ praises inundated the air all around.