The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter (The Burning #1)
The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for almost two hundred years. Their society has been built around war and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.
Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war. Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn’t get the chance. Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him.
Trigger warning: violence, references to sexual assault and rape, discussions of genocide
Evan Winter asks the question ‘what leads people to be seen as monsters?’ What leads them to that mindset and what is the impact of cyclical violence? We question who the bad guys are and whether things are really as crystal clear in our mind as we are led to believe.
He asks us to look at a fantasy world analogous to the continent of Africa, where a queendom is at war with aboriginal tribes, where class and blood ties force inequalities on the underprivileged, so we may ask: are these the monsters? Or is there something deep-rooted and internalized in their creation and migration to this land?
The answer is more nuanced and complex than my white ass assumed. Remember Sakaar in Thor: Ragnarok where all that garbage from other worlds falls from the sky? That is my brain when assuming some white shit and I need to clean house. It’s also why it took me a while to really think about what is going on in this book. I needed to look at this book from a non-western perspective and truly come from a place where I can see how people get to the places they are when they’ve experienced trauma.
One of the things I love most about fantasy is its ability to take the rich cultures and histories of this world and use them to build new worlds. This book takes from various African cultures and history to built the world, without necessarily sticking to the rules and confines of our own.
Evan Winter provides a fantasy world celebrating black skin tones, cultures, and love. He centers and loves on blackness and africanness. Like many in the genre, he uses influences of the world to build his own. This genre is known for lauding ‘historical accuracy’ for an imagined Anglo-Saxon history; a white supremacist fairy tale. The bad guys have typically been racially coded as black or arab, such as the orcs and southerners in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
While the world Winter has created doesn’t hold to a singular African culture, the many layered and richness of many form in this novel to celebrate the diversity of African cultures and histories. The Omehi, the Hedeni, the Xidda are not Africans but they do celebrate African identity in a fantastic way.
I think white readers, like myself, often see matriarchal societies from a western perspective. Sometimes judgments about non-western matriarchies place white assumptions onto those worlds. One of the underlying themes in Winter’s world is colonialism. What does matriarchy look like when colonialism is a factor?
African cultures, prior to colonialism, built societies on the power of women, who were appreciated rather than looked on as a threat. Women ruled with unquestionable authority, led armies into battle, lived in societies absent of systematic mistreatment by men, and men accepted their femininity and intelligence as normal. Matriarchy does not mean the opposite of white patriarchy. Matriarchy had gender roles but that did not mean men lacked power or authority. North American matriarchal societies, for example, had male chiefs even though they were matriarchal. Men in different matriarchal societies around the world could be warriors and sometimes the warriors were women.
So what happens to a matriarchal society when some silver skinned immortals fuck shit up?
In the Rage of Dragons status is determined by the mother. Men and women can rise ranks, if they pass the test. Women become Gifted, who have magical abilities to call dragons and protect warriors in battle. Men can become Ingonyama, warriors with unimaginable strength.
Winter does not write matriarchy like sprinkles on a cupcake. Its written into the very fabric of Omehi society. Men provide dowries, status is through the mother, and women run their family’s estates. The Omehi believe their Goddess Ananthi tested the races of man and chose from the most honorable, passionate, empathetic, and intelligent. They believe they are those people. They escaped to Xidda, a land where aboriginal tribes have been at war with them since they arrived.
It exists to make us strong enough to end the world’s greatest evil. We will pass the Goddess’s test and defeat the hedeni. Then, triumphant, strong, we will return to our homeland. We will return to Osonte and end the Cull.
More than anything the Omehi fear the Cull, the silver skinned immortals that drove them from their home. Their mythology tells their history, one where the people tell of colonialism as tales of monstrous beings and monstrous times. Ukufa, an evil being from their tales, felt threatened by their powerful Goddess Ananthi. The silver-skinned immortals, made so by Ukufa, sought to kill the Omehi and Ananthi.
“Let them think me a monster,” the Dragon Queen thought. “I will be a monster, if it means we survive.”
The Omehi’s survival meant they resorted to terrible things. Colonialism pushes people to do things they would never otherwise do. Winter’s seamless threading of colonialism throughout the Rage of Dragons reminds me of the very real way it’s played out in our own: creeping, infesting, hidden in plain sight until it warps and corrupts the minds of its victims. One of the best cinematic examples of this is in Thor: Ragnarok.
On the surface it’s about a white cosmic superhero/god saving his home from his evil sister. Beneath, it’s about how the history Thor knew is a lie. Sorry, colonizer. Your kingdom was built on the genocide of others. While Thor and his buddies try to decolonize and protect their people, this book centers the survivors. But just like many other African nations, the Omehi internalized their trauma. People who experience trauma do not always come out unscathed. When the Gifted use their powers against their enemies, they transport them to another realm of demons. When they come back from that realm, it incapacitates them. Winter writes a metaphor for PTSD and the impacts of trauma.
“some people break after a demon attack”
A combination of Inigo Montoya and Erik Killmonger (because he’s half lovey dovey and half murder bitch), Tau is broken from watching someone he loves die. Seeking revenge on those murderers, he fails and fails and fails until finally he can achieve what he sought out to do. But it doesn’t always turn out as he hopes. It is this aspect of him which reminds me of Erik Killmonger.
He is a monster of our own making.”Black Panther, dir. Ryan Coogler, Marvel, 2018.
He and his people need healing. It is time for them to awaken to that part of them so they may see their true enemy. It is the oppressive trauma of Killmonger, which so makes us empathize with him, that make us empathize with Tau and the Omehi.
Even though I loved the nuance, the complexity, the nonstop action, the Princess Bride reference, and the fast pace of this novel, I still have some problems with this book:
We are told about character’s family members being raped during raids. I suspect the author wants to mimic the similar impact of colonialism on African nations. There are moments where Tau critiques Noble men forcing themselves on women. What I dislike is the lack of questioning on how tribes with matriarchal institutions would resort to this violence and why it’s only targeted towards women. I appreciate that rape isn’t played out but something the characters speak of with contempt. Of course, I prefer sexual assault and misogyny to be left completely out but I understand there should be room for novels to discuss rape. I also understand it’s important in novels where colonialism is a major theme. But I need characters to ask more questions about how women are treated.
I love seeing women in such powerful roles. I love seeing women in battle scenes, whether as magic users or as a hilarious spear-wielding chick (who I am completely in love with). I loved seeing sexually confident women (like Zuri, Tau’s love interest). What I didn’t love is the overt sexual descriptions of women, as if that is the only thing men can think about when they’re in love with a woman. Most female characters have these long descriptions of their bodies. Women’s attractiveness is definitely noted on way too much. Most of Tau’s thoughts of Zuri are not of how she, a person, makes him feel but of how sexy her body is and how her body makes him feel. These two people are in love but at what point is that the only factor in their relationship? The answer is 100% Tau’s thoughts of Zuri. In our own world black women are already so sexualized by the media. Nope, not okay with that. I’m going to need that to change in future books.
If you enjoy the nuance and complexity of Robert Jordan’s books. If you enjoy seeing how complicated human beings can be. If you like seeing women in positions of power. If you like fantasy books that center black people. If you’re just bored of European styled worlds. If you like seeing an author push against the idea of what is normal in the fantasy genre than you’ll enjoy this one.