So the other day I was on Amazon, doing the usual bit of browsing, when I spotted one of those little advertisement bars that Amazon uses to get eyeballs on products by advertising things “like” what you’ve purchased or are interested in. To what should be no one’s surprise, Amazon has figured out that I like the book Axtara – Banking and Finance. Which isn’t exactly true, since I love that little book and its characters. Like isn’t a strong enough word.
Anyway, naturally I browsed this little recommended section because hey, I love Axtara, and Amazon thought these books were similar. It’s not always right, but I’m always down for a good dragon book, so I gave it a look. Even clicked on one that from the title, looked a little promising. Lots of reviews, high rating, all about dragons—
Oh wait. Scratch that. It wasn’t about dragons, but about dragon riders. That’s right, yet another book where dragons, intelligent or not, are reduced to glorified flying horses for a surely-not-just-like-every-other-fantasy-protagonist human.
To borrow from River City Ransom: BARF!!!
Look, I’ve always enjoyed dragons, ever since I was a kid. But I never enjoyed books about dragon riders (with one exception) because, well, honestly they never go past the trope. Again, with that one exception. The dragons are just mounts. Spiny, scaled, flying mounts that may or may not breathe fire. Worse, often they’re intelligent, as in fully sapient, but just fine living in a stable, being treated like a beast of burden, and generally only talking so that the protagonist has someone to talk to to reassure them that they’re “doing the right thing” or whatever.
Does it not bother anyone that a massive swath of dragon books involve treating a sentient being like a piece of property? If the dragon were human, we’d call it “slavery” and YA Twitter would descend with torches and pitchforks to burn that author’s career to the ground … even if the book were about how wrong it was and how the cast overcame it or fought against it.
But hey, if they’re not human, that makes it “okay” I guess. Sure, buy and sell the sapient species. They’re made to be mounts anyway! It’s what the universe intended!
It’s not just that aspect that bugs me about these books—though it does play a large part. It reminds me in a way of that awful YA fantasy I read that was “about” a sapient dragon, only for the dragon to get cursed into a human in the first chapter and spend the rest of the book going “Wow golly gee, being a human is just so swell and awesome! Why would I ever want to go back to being a dragon?” There’s an aspect of to a lot of dragon stories that really seems blatantly speciest. And while some of you might be saying “Well so what? It’s not real.” the attitudes behind that kind of ideology are, and as we see in the real world, very quick to be placed on other sapients in our own lives.
Crud, one series I read which started out (which was already against the norm by being from the perspective of the sapient dragons rather then another generic human protag) even went so far as to, by the end of five books, have the dragons create dragon riding and allow themselves to be subjugated by humans. The excuse given was that it “worked better that way.” This after having the dragons fight back against dragon-riding at the start, but then being okay with it as long as they got to keep their free will. The stable was fine as long, as was the servitude, as long as they didn’t have to suffer mind control.
Wow. What kind of trash theme is that?
But like I said, that’s not all that bugs me about these books. For one, they’re all super simplistic. The worlds are often flat and copy-pasted from one another. Generic fantasy kingdom, meet generic fantasy evil, meet generic protagonist who doubts themself or whatever. There are plenty of books that do that without having a dragon that is completely underutilized, yet I have to wade through this every time I go looking for a good book about dragons. A good chunk of these books seem almost completely interchangeable.
And yes, some might point out that “the market wants what it wants,” and that “fantasy schlock is easy to write.” That’s all true, yes, so maybe I’m just griping that I’m tired of people not having higher standard for their books about dragons. Because dragon rider books are, from my perspective, a large majority of books about dragons, right next to “the dragon is the evil the hero must overcome,” and slightly above “the dragon is a mysterious creature who helps/hinders along the way” appearance.
Again, this isn’t to say that dragon rider books are all bad. To my knowledge the ones in Pern
aren’t sapient or intelligent EDIT: As a commenter let me know below, they are, but again the series did some lifting to put some reason behind it besides the now common “because,” END EDIT and that book was a bit of a trope codifier anyway. The Temeraire series meanwhile directly addresses a lot of the concerns about sapience I voiced above (making it the exception I mentioned) and explores these issues directly against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. How to Train Your Dragon (the movie trilogy, not the books) is fuzzy on the sapience, but has the protagonist never stop putting the needs of the dragons above his own, to the point that he ends the whole process he began because too many can’t make it work. But that’s a movie, not a book.
And they’re both an exception to the general rule. Most books with dragons as characters—primary characters—seem content to regulate the dragon to the position of “talking horse” and leave it at that.
Which is such a waste.
There’s a lot of attention in some fantasy circles these days about exploring other non-human cultures. About moving past one-slot species stereotype and giving the various trends of fantasy that haven’t gotten that much attention, like orcs or goblins, a bit of focus. What makes their civilization tick? How do they fit into a culture or society if we stop making them “generic things the classic protagonist kills?”
I have no issues there. But there’s definitely a majority trend of “let’s apply it to humanoids and forget everything else.” Dragons? Why would they have a society? They’re just talking mounts!
I don’t like it. And I like even less that just about every book that Amazon compares to Axtara, claiming they’re “similar” is just another “youth learns to ride a dragon to save the world” where the dragon is a beast of burden, sapient or not.
Sands, it’s one of the reasons that the titular Axtara faces such prejudice in her own book. As does her brother in A Trial for a Dragon (which you Patreon Supporters have already gotten to read). It’s realistic, but it’s also my own acknowledgement that a lot of these dragon-rider books, outside of being painfully similar and bland, do sink right into this whole mindset of “You don’t look human, therefore you’re my mount with the convenient double ability to be a squire for me to talk to.”
And this isn’t to say that in a realistic fantasy kingdom there wouldn’t be prejudice against dragons. Not at all. Axtara shows that very clearly: There is. She deals with it, and it’s one of the challenges she has to face in setting up her bank.
But Axtara pushes back against those prejudices, while a lot of dragon-rider books (and a lot of dragon fantasy, if I’m honest), embrace them. They make dragons beasts of burden, or spend time waxing about how much better it would be if they were human, etc etc etc.
What a waste.
Look, it’s not just that these stories shove dragons into what is, if I’m honest, effectively a slavery system. But that there’s so much more they could be doing with dragons, but these creators (and readers) keep going back to the boring, bland, beast of burden trope.
I don’t read a story about a dragon to have them get turned into a human and wax about how much better being a human rather than their usual flying self. Nor do I read a story about a dragon to read about a human who rides the dragon like a horse. I read a story about a dragon to read about a dragon. Being a dragon.
At the very least if they’re going to end up human, have it be by choice, as in Dragon’s Ring where the protagonist uses their ability to become human to slip past a number of opponents that believe no dragon would ever become something “lesser” than a dragon, or in a story where the dragon is trying to get back to being their old self.
I realize this post is a bit of a consciousness stream, and for that I apologize. But I love books about dragons. So it boggles me that the closest Amazon, with almost every book in the world on it, can come to “similar” is “books where dragons are just a talking, flying horse.”
It bugs me even further to know that of the dragon books out there, the majority of them are these “talking, flying horse” books. That they’re a huge majority despite being endlessly uncreative, bland, and trope-heavy.
Then again, Romance as a genre hasn’t had to bother with a new script in over a century, so I suppose that’s just the way dragon-rider books are? And that’s how the majority of fantasy likes their dragons? Either opposing the hero or a talking horse they can ride?
I just don’t like it. Maybe I’m the odd one out then in liking dragons like Axtara, who’s trying to open a bank, or Dostoy, who’s a landowner/minor lord for a mountain, or Ryax, who’s learning how to be a wizard. Dragons that think and act like independent, sapient beings rather than a horse or an obstacle. Maybe that’s too much for a lot of readers. Dragons are either bad, roar, and we kill them, or they’re mounts. That’s “how fantasy dragons are.”
But I’m definitely tired of it. Of seeing the exact same kinds of book amassing hundreds of reviews and being almost the solitary choice for many compared to Axtara.
Dragons can be a lot more. Sands, in other mediums they are. Warcraft‘s setting has whole societies of dragons, built around a culture based on the type of magic each of them is familiar with. Dragons spend time shapeshifted as other creatures, but still are dragons in the end and go back to that. They aren’t beasts of burden, but thinking, questioning, intelligent beings alongside all the other races of Azeroth (of course, Warcraft and Blizzard have other problems right now, but we won’t get into that).
Other mediums are figuring this out. Books should too.
By the way, if you’ve read this far and agree with what I’ve said, but haven’t checked out Axtara – Banking and Finance yet, then do yourself a favor and take a look at it. No dragon riders, no indentured servitude. Just a young dragon out on her own in a fantasy world with the aim of riches and personal success … by way of founding her own bank.
You can check out a free preview of the first few chapters here, or take a look at the book on Amazon here. Sands, you can even ask your local bookstore to get you a copy if you’d rather not use Amazon.