I really enjoyed this story. It’s well-written: good clear prose, strong story and well structured. The theme is similar to that of Avatar, with off-worlders exploiting a planet’s natural resources for financial gain, destroying its ecology and denying the rights of the indigenous to self-determination or any kind of protection, rights or voice. So of course it is also a fine analogy with the problems of our own world, both in the past, with overt colonialism, and the present where such exploitation carries on mostly unabated but now under the cloak of free enterprise.
There are many interesting idiosyncracies and quirks to give this planet a solid reality. It is a terraformed world: because it was created, in a past so distant its creators are now forgotten, it is filled with collections of extinct or semi-mythical beasts. Gryphons, dinosaurs, dragons and unicorns exist side by side. There is no predation, only scavenging by the gryphon and others, plus the main sustenance source is a kind of nectar-like manna that forms in belts in the sky and drops to earth, but can be harvested at its best by creatures such as the dragons in flight.
There are scientist/watcher, and exploiter/collector humans or humanoids, the two groups possessing profoundly different and irreconcilable approaches to the life on this planet. Two scientists are a mother and son, Amber and Hote, and they have problems of their own to do with the Commander of the collectors, and a missing sister, and a fusion in interspace that has left Holt half-invisible and invaded.
Then another main character we follow is Rumplewing, a young dragon with problems in her clan. After an horrific accident, she breaks her wings and loses her groombug. The groombug is a symbiot/tiny male dragon, who lives in each dragon’s third ear and grooms her scales. Without her groombug, who is bonded with her from birth to death, dragons die.
Cast out from her clan, Rumplewing is desperately lonely without her groombug, terribly damaged and unlikely to last long; but her meeting with another groombug, Balofur, an elder as opposed to a youngling like herself, means her path changes and takes on great purpose. Together, Rumplewing and Balofur discover more about the horrific dragon trade the collectors are secretly carrying on: they must save the dragons, and expose the illegal trade by proving to a High Arbiter judge-like person that dragons are sentient.
The pace is well-maintained, the main characters well-realized and very relatable. Amber is sweet and approachable and well-loved; Hote is perceived as weird and half-crazy and feels uncertain, anxious and excluded. Giving a dragon a voice as a main character was brilliant, because we get to learn the dragon’s customs and way of life from the inside.
If I were going to be picky, I would say that the ecology by which each dragon only lays one egg at the end of her life, ie replaces her self so there is no population explosion, so no natural selection which relies on vying for scarce resources (which would almost certainly lead to the evolution of predators) is not really sustainable in perpetuity. Even if there is no predation or sickness, accidents will happen: it is mentioned that damaged dragons, or ones who have lost their groombugs due to injury etc, separate from their clan, shut down and die. This would over time inexorably lead to a constantly diminishing population.
It is quite interesting, actually; I suspect that the author has chosen the 1:1 replacement method of reproduction as a mechanism for maintaining a planet in perfect balance, but it wouldn’t really work. Living systems’ balance comes from opposing forces always in a state of flux, and it’s difficult to imagine a system which is completely stable.
Anyway, that’s all very boring and doesn’t affect enjoyment of the story at all, is just interesting as it gets you thinking…
I would have quite liked a clearer idea of Holt in the sense that I was never quite sure exactly how he looked. At first I thought the invisibility might be metaphorical, for his exclusion. Then I realized it was literal, but he clearly wasn’t completely invisible, as people always seemed to know he was there… only he doesn’t always feel fully present. It’s a minor point, but I would have liked a bit more clarity on how exactly he appeared to others.
And the story was a bit too forgiving for me. Quite a lot of bad guys were allowed to reform in some way (not all, trying to avoid spoilers here). I wanted harsher retributions after all the terrible things that had been done. Plus I was a bit puzzled that the Shining Ones Clan were so harsh towards Rumplewing, tasking her with lugging the disgusting Batwing around – and then, when Batwing caused the accident which ruined Rumplewing’s wings, she’s not blamed at all. It seemed the justice and judgments were extremely one-sided.
They’re my quibbles, and they are only quibbles.
Great read, carrying its important message lightly: give it a go.
PS One further thing after all - the cover doesn't do this story justice. Invest in a better cover, Gloria! The story's 100% worth it!