Review: Dragonborn by Maeghan Friday

This is the cover of Dragonborn by Maeghan Friday, which shows a red dragon on top of an aged book

This review is part of the series of reviews of asexual fiction published by LT3 press which I am doing for Asexual Awareness Week.

So, What Is This Story About?

Cecily and Ben, twin children of the king and queen of Aethier, are ‘dragonborn’ which means they have magic. They each have their own bodies, yet they can also enter each others’ bodies. They are also engaged to marry a dragon on their twentieth birthday, and if they fail to do so, they will die.

Also, the king and queen are bigotly opposed to any kind of queerness, as well as poly romantic/sexual relationships.

What Kind of Sexual and/or Violent Content Does This Story Have, If Any?

There is a scene where a couple of characters very bluntly ask a third character for sex, and sex happens in a fade-to-black scene. There is also sword-fighting, and an attempted execution.

Tell Me More about This Novella

It’s bad enough when a story has a token character to represent some specific identity, but at least it’s possible for that to be an unfortunate flaw in an otherwise solid story. If all of the characters are tokens, then … chances are, it’s not a solid story at all.

For example, there is a token ‘asexual’ character (who I describe later in the review) whose only purpose in the story seems to be a) to Represent ‘Asexuality’ and b) to be an extra body in the Super Poly Union. She feels severely underdeveloped as a character.

As far as POC, well, there are mentions that some characters have dark skin and brown eyes, and others have fair skin, and some characters have something in between. Here is a prime example:

The queen was tall and sharp-featured, with the pale skin of her ancestors, the conquerors who had long ago taken over the kingdom of Aethier and joined it with their own, Ratirzan. The king, on the other hand, had only been a nobleman before he married, working his way up through the ranks with a strong ambition. He did not have the blood of the conquerors in his veins. He had the rich dark skin and hair of most inhabitants of Aethier, and he could not have looked more a contrast to his wife.

Not that it mattered, really. Both of them hated Cecily, and that was all she needed to know.

That last line seems to sum up the book’s approach to skin color – it mentions that some fair-skinned people conquered a dark-skinned people, which is why there are characters of multiple skin colors, yet it doesn’t matter. The behavior of the dark-skinned and fair-skinned characters is indistinguishable – I don’t mean that in the sense that they are all human, I mean it seems they came from the same cultures and the same kind of life-experiences. In other words, it seems like the whole point of bringing up skin color is to Mark That There Are POC without actually putting any POC perspectives in the story.

I will say that the fic does explore nonbinary gender in more depth than it does asexual or POC identities. It puts particular emphasis on using proper pronouns.

The poly aspect … it seemed like the writer wanted a big poly relationship, so she told the characters do it, without putting the effort into describing why the characters would want a poly relationship. More than once, it was stated that character A agreed to bond with character B because A was in love with B, and I was like ‘huh? Since when was A in love with B’? There is very little attempt to actually develop romantic or sexual relationships, they just get declared. I have read quite a bit of writing by poly people about the experiences they have in poly relationships, and almost none of that is reflected in this story.

Don’t get me wrong, I think representing a diverse array of identities is very cool. However, it does not excuse a writer from writing a good story. And if you are going to represent people with a particular identity, maybe those characters should actually be like people who have that identity?

In addition to the lack of character development, it was hard for me to follow the plot. And it seems that the characters don’t face any significant obstacles. Sure, it seems they are dealing with some serious problems, but they eventually get resolved without the characters having to put in much effort.

An example of a fictional work which I think does a good job of twisting the medieval Western European tales of dragons taking maidens so that it features a POC princess-with-a-twin-brother who I headcanon as asexual-aromantic and telling a good story at the same time is “The Pragmatical Princess” by Nisi Shawl. Even though it’s just a short story, I feel it has way more substance than Dragonborn.

So, Asexuality?

Rating it on the asexuality content scale I described in the introduction is a bit tricky. Let me explain.

The ‘asexual’ character in the story is Lila. Why do I put ‘asexual’ in quotation marks? Because if this novel had not been explicitly been marked as an ‘asexual’ novel, I would not have considered Lila to be a canonical asexual character – in other words, I think Lila is only a canonical ace by Word of God and not strictly from the text itself.

Here are the passages which are relevant to asexuality:

And anyway, why would Cecily want her? Lila was different, in a way that maybe made some sense in Murelle but certainly wouldn’t be accepted by an Aethieran. She didn’t want the physical unions that so many of her peers placed importance on. She never had. So that was that; the thought was put out of her mind.

and

“But…” And then, as she came back to herself, she remembered the larger problem, the problem that would dismay Crispin and Ben alike, the problem that would be the end of her. “I don’t wish… a physical union. I have never wished a physical union. I would be willing, for the sake of an heir, but…”

and

Crispin seemed nothing but pleased at the chance to explain. “There are many different types of bonds, each suiting the pair to whom it applies. My bond with Lila, for example, will be what we call romantic, but not physical. A physical union is not necessary—”

Yes, out of more than 40,000 words, this is literally everything which have anything to do with asexuality.

So, from this, we gather that a) Lila is ‘different’ and b) she has never wanted sex and c) she is afraid this will cause problems in forming personal relationships. This is definitely enough to make me think ‘hmmmm, this person may very well be asexual’. However, it is entirely possible for someone to have all of these traits without being asexual. That is why, without the Word of God, I would classify Lila as a headcanon asexual rather than an unambiguous asexual.

Lila is a supporting character, not a lead protagonist, and as grossly undeveloped as her character is, most of her appearances in the story have little to do with asexuality, so I am going to tentatively rate Dragonborn as a ‘2’ on the asexuality content scale (since her ‘asexuality’ influences her decision to refuse to join a ‘physical union’ I decided to rate it higher than a 1).

Was This Written by an Asexual?

Maeghan Friday says on her personal blog that she is probably some flavor of asexual.

Hey Sara, Do You Like This Story?

No, I don’t like this story. If I were reading for pleasure, I would have quit about one third of the way through the story. I only put up with the tedium of reading this entire thing because I wanted to review it – though I was seriously tempted to give up midway and write this review anyway.

If you want to buy this after all, the eBook edition of Dragonborn is available here (as well as at various other eBook retailers), and the paperback edition is available here

Tomorrow, I am going to post the next review, which is going to be about To Terminator With Love by Wes Kennedy.

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One thought on “Review: Dragonborn by Maeghan Friday

  1. Pingback: For Asexual Awareness Week, I Am Going to Review Asexual Novel(la)s | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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