There’s so much here I could have loved… water magic, firedrakes, a L.A. that resembles Venice, San Francisco, a kick-ass woman. So perhaps you can understand my sadness when I say it failed to gestalt into something remarkable for me.
Dragon Coast is the continuation of the story began in California Bones (review) and continued in Pacific Fire (review). It most directly connects to events in Fire, so much so that I’d consider the two a duology. One can see how the success of the first book likely gestated contracts for more storytelling in that world. At any rate, consider my summary to have spoilers for Fire.
Daniel is a powerful osteomancer, or bone-mage, seeking a way to free his adopted son, Sam who disappeared during a conflict with a magically-constructed firedrake, and Daniel’s hoping he’s alive inside the creature. He’s right–Sam is alive, although it’s a schizophrenic sort of reality where he feels as if he has a discrete physical body inside the firedrake, although logic tells him he doesn’t. Unfortunately, he’s unable to operate the controls guiding the creature. Daniel has a plan to magically transfer Sam out of the drake and brings a couple of valuable friends to help–the unkillable Moth, and one of the Emmas who has developed a special relationship with Sam. In the midst of capturing the drake, the mission goes sideways: now the beast is missing and the critical and extremely rare ingredient to transfer Sam to a new body was destroyed. The only solution will take them north to the hostile country of Northern California.
The world was well-developed over the previous two books, so the author wisely avoids detailed explanations and history. Previously, I was fascinated by the canal riddled L.A., but unfortunately it appears that in this world, Northern California looks about the same as the real one. Details on the setting are largely sacrificed in favor of plotting and character.
Speaking of plotting, for a caper/heist set-up, it felt disjointed. There’s an arc regarding Sam and his experiences inside the drake, as well as Gabriel’s attempts to oppose the drake due to the destruction it has wrought on L.A.. There’s Daniel’s attempt to capture the drake. Those both come to an end with Sam’s capture, but then new conflicts arise. Gabriel and Daniel combine forces, with Gabriel and the team attempting to find Sam, and Daniel attempting to steal the ingredient needed to save Sam through an extremely complicated scam that involves impersonating his half-brother. I was reminded of The Likeness when I had to consciously accept implausibility, but it was a bit much when Daniel remained undiscovered around two childhood friends and a former lover. Coherency is further challenged with narratives shifting between Daniel, Sam, Gabriel and Cassandra.
Sam’s personal struggle is about controlling and then exploring the drake–and yes, in that order–while Daniel’s is about rescuing Sam, the deaths of families (sometimes literally) and innocence. For me, it was hard to connect with either of them. By the end, both Sam and Daniel appeared to have failed to learn any lesson until it was tied up and handed to them on a silver platter by the women in their lives. More enjoyable were the indefatigable best friend, Moth, and skilled thief Cassandra. Their abilities to decide and execute were in stark contrast to Daniel’s static ‘research’ and self-immolation.
Also interesting was Gabriel, one of the chief powers in L.A. because of his water magic. and learning more about his view of the world and watching him put his magic into action was one of the enjoyable aspects of world-building. The relationship between him and his right-hand-man, Max was one of the more complex interactions. Layered with overtones from the second book, they’ve transformed the prior owner-servant relationship into something approaching friendship, and possibly love. Now that would have been a fascinating primary story.
“It occurred to him that he could simply bring down the dam and create a cataclysmic flood that would rip sequoias from the ground, push over buildings and send them smashing into bridges… and Gabriel could arrive behind the flood, like a general walking through the gates of a conquered city.
But he didn’t want to be that kind of water mage, so he continued to slip and struggle down the cliff side.”
Language is serviceable, but again, coming off of City of Blades, I can’t help but think that with more polish, it would elevated Daniel’s modus operandi into the truly tragic instead of annoying and pointlessly self-defeating. There was a lovely bit or two where it was able to get at the emotion of a moment:
“But right now, at this moment, I don’t have time to care. You are not the most important thing to me. My pain is not the most important thing to me. I have a job to do, and all I care about is how your presence complicates it.'”
Writing shone in the humorous bits of dialogue between the team:
“‘That’s a Rothko. It’s worth millions.’
‘How do you know?’
‘What’s that thing when the little inky bugs go into your eyes and make brain knowledge? Reading.’
‘Art books are mostly pictures, aren’t they?’
‘Don’t insult me when I’m busy insulting you.'”
I suspect I am so harsh on this third book because the first book was so absolutely fun, full of creative world-building around a fast-moving plot. While there are a few great moments–crawling through pipes and eavesdropping at lunch come to mind–it lacks both the planning and the madcap rush of a true heist. Yet, it can’t quite manage the complexity of a redemption arc either. I’ll be giving this one another read through, unless the library comes knocking for their copy, but won’t be adding it to my own library.