REVIEW: Dragon Bound by Thea Harrison

Friday, July 15, 2011
“‘Look at you,’ he murmured almost to himself. ‘You’re a baby, nothing but a moment, a heartbeat.’
She took a quivering breath. ‘I’m more than that.’” (67)

Pia’s mother raised her by one simple rule: fly beneath the radar.  There’s a codicil or twelve (never let anyone near your blood, always keep your protective spells up, always stay out of the Other Worlds that parallel the human one) but the only law is fly beneath the radar, and keep your secrets.  But that’s a lonely life, and when Pia meets a man she just might love, she lets her mask slip, ever so slightly.  The next thing she knows, she’s being blackmailed by her erstwhile lover: fulfill a contract he’s been given, he tells her, or he reveals her secrets to the world.  That contract? Steal an item from the dragon’s hoard.

The dragon, Cuelebre (his friends call him Dragos), is one of the oldest and most powerful creatures in this world or any Other one, and he’s, to use the mildest possible term, a collector.  He likes his things, and he knows them well.  When he finds that someone has, for the first time in the eons he’s been hoarding, penetrated his defenses, he’s filled with rage.  When he finds what’s been taken - a single penny - he’s puzzled.  When he reads the note Pia left (Apologies! I left a replacement penny, so no hard feelings!), he’s bemused despite himself. 

He sets himself to track her, and, this being an urban paranormal romance, it should surprise no one that he finds her in a tangle of limbs and desperate possessiveness.  He’s anciently grumpy and self-sufficent, and she’s slow to trust, so what we have here is a classic okay-I-want-you-but-what-is-love-anyway plot-extender.

“His head jerked up.  He had one of the most startling and unwelcome thoughts of the last century.
Am I a boyfriend?” (203)

Harrison’s novel shows its influences - Pia’s more than a bit of a Sookie Stackhouse, all plucky sass and strange attraction for creatures of the Other Worlds.  She even has a Sam-esque is-it-really-platonic friend for whom she works.  (This plot-line troubled me - it’s minimal enough that I wondered what its purpose was, if we were never going to be given more than a sketch of Pia’s life before love, and sexually charged enough - “She was shocked at how good it felt to have Quentin stroke her hair.  Going boneless, she turned her face into his shirt.  He smelled like warm, virile male and green growing places” - to make me wonder what exactly Pia was giving up when Dragos tells her abruptly that her old life was over and there was no going back.) And Cuelebre’s status as a dictatorial warlord of what amounts to both a tribe and corporation of Wyr shifters smacks of Nalini Singh, to say the least.

So Dragon Bound walks the line between traditional and derivative pretty perilously. Combined with love scenes that are, um, ferociously mechanical and the same chirpy dialogue that finally turned me off of Kresley Cole’s urban paranormal series, this kept me in a state of constant preparation to dislike the novel.  (Pia calls her house-sized dragon of a boyfriend “big guy” throughout.  I cringed every time. By contrast, Dragos, to my delight, often undercut his more treacly comments with affectionate exasperation: “You were dying, you little shit.”) I was even prepared to admit, at last, that maybe urban paranormals just weren’t for me, with rare exceptions like Carolyn Crane’s excellent series. 

But I have to be honest with you.  I didn’t dislike it.  Not at all. I found the characters warm and nuanced. The interactions between the two lovers (when they weren’t pistoning away in bed like something from the Industrial Revolution) to be an unidealized portrait of what it's like to love with good intentions and minute experience of togetherness, as when (for instance) one of you is an all-powerful reptile used to ruling in perfect unquestioned solitude and the other is a hunted creature in mystical witness protection.  And there are moments of real psychological and ideological interest here, as when Pia and a witch sub-contractor negotiate her right to make the despicable ex swear a magically binding oath to keep her secrets:
“‘If someone swears and oath of his own free will, the binding falls into the realm of contractual obligation and justice.  I can do that.  And have as a matter of fact,’ the other woman said.  She moved toward the back of her shop. ‘Follow me.’
Pia’s abused conscience twitched.  Unlike the polarized white and black magics, gray magic was supposed to be neutral, but the witch’s kind of ethical parsing never did sit well with her.  Like the relaxation spell in the shop, it felt manipulative, devoid of any real moral substance.  A great deal of harm could be done under the guise of neutrality.” (15)
This is fascinating, all the more so because this binding spell is a necessary plot device, one that I was glad of as the plot progresses, and one that I admired Pia for initiating.  Does this speak to a manipulative streak in the very warp and weft of this genre, or my readerly response to it?  
Later I wondered this again when it wasn’t clear whether I should admire the vegan, pacifist Pia’s descent into bloodthirsty murderousness, or decry it. There is this to be said: Pia - and the next heroine in the series, if I’m reading the excerpt at the end of this volume correctly - are weaker than the Wyr warriors around them, but they have a defensive strength that is substantial and ferocious, equal in deft (even deceptive) ingenuity to anything the brawny warriors bring to the table.  Is feeling pleased by this murderous development in Pia’s character a variety of warrior feminism (I hope), or is it a narrative seduction into an ethos of ambiguously moral violence?  I love a book that makes me wonder, as Harrison does in the passage above.
I’d love to see more paranormal romance that deemphasizes Whedonesque chirp (I love me some Whedon, but prefer his verbal wit to what always seemed to me a weird faux teenage argot) and breathless thriller action in favor of these sorts of moments: true, morally ambiguous, and thoughtful.  I hope Harrison’s future novels give her the freedom to do exactly that.  I’ll be reading them.

Dragon Bound 
Thea Harrison

A spoilery post-script (be VERY sure you skip this if you haven’t yet read the book, and, for that matter, if you’ve been living under a very large stone encumbrance and don’t know the plot of the Twilight series): 

Maybe, in the PT (post-traumatic, er, I mean, post-Twilight) era, I’m just hypersensitive to the politics of pregnancy in the romance genre, but I’m really uncomfortable with embryos (not fetuses, even, but wee specks of potential life mere weeks post-conception) that have substantial individual consciousnesses and two-way subjective relationships.  Admittedly, I was glad to see that this embryo, unlike the Cullen-to-be, heals its mother rather than, you know, devouring her from within in its desperate hunger to be free (and feast on flesh).  But still, these things have a political dimension, and one that has a real effect on how people understand this issue.  For me, because of my particular leftist feminist beliefs, that was a slightly uncomfortable plot device.
I also have one more feminist skeptic’s question about marriage and the troublesome fated-mate trope.  If mates are fated, what purpose does marriage serve as an institution?  You’re fated to love one another, and only one another, for the rest of your lives.  What exactly does marriage add to that, apart from the opportunity to spend a great deal of money on a ring and a kick-ass, stressful party? (Or the opportunity to reinforce the essential place of the marriage proposal in the formula of the HEA?  That possibility really irks me.)

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