By: J.A. Andrews
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Publisher: J.A. Andrews
“The origin of the Keepers is intrinsically connected to the creation of Queensland, and her very first queen. Back in the days when the land was peppered with loosely connected cities, a looming threat grew in the east. And those destined to shape nations came together, almost by chance.” Alaric, Court Keeper. JA Andrews, Dragon’s Reach
What are the ingredients for epic fantasy? Although my cooking leaves much to be desired, I do know what tastes good. I may not be able to write a story, but I know brilliant fantasy when I read it. Take amazing world building, several unique forms of magic, well-developed characters, and a story that draws the reader in from page one and JA Andrews has cooked up an incredibly imaginative epic fantasy, Dragon’s Reach. Having already read and loved the Keeper Chronicles, I was enthralled with Ms. Andrews’ work. To say that I was excited to read the Keeper Origins is an understatement. Dragon’s Reach went far beyond my expectations, with Ms. Andrews exploring themes of family, loyalty, betrayal, and love, all interwoven in a page turning epic fantasy full of adventure, twists, and turns the reader cannot predict. Dragon’s Reach follows the life and adventures of Sable, an orphan since her parents and one of her sisters were killed in an attack. As she tries to better her life and that of her other sister, Talia, from living in Dockside, the slums of the city Immumsala, she works for Kiva, a gang leader. Sable wants nothing more than to leave that life behind. So sets the stage for Dragon’s Reach and how Sable tries to achieve her goal.
The story is told from the third person from Sable’s perspective. As the main character, we must see everything from her point of view. We must feel her pain, her disappointments, her frustrations, her love, and her loyalty. Sable is an extremely well composed character with a fully developed story arc. She is smart, tenacious, caring, daring, and above all, would do anything for her sister. Sable is the person who tries to protect everyone she loves, and will do it at any cost to herself, including working for Kiva. Most of that work involves illegal activity, but as long as her sister is kept from him, that’s all that matters:
“For the thousandth time, she turned herself into the person Kiva needed her to be, and locked all her worries and regrets inside, trying to somehow keep them from tainting her sister.
Because the only thing that would make Dockside worse would be if it changed Talia.” JA Andrews, Dragon’s Reach
The magic system is very unique. Sable, though she doesn’t really understand how, can detect if a person is lying. It does help in her work with Kiva. When he sends her on a job and tells her why, she knows if he is being truthful about it, even if it is illegal. It’s this magic she possess and her natural intelligence that makes her so valuable to Kiva, though he is unaware of her ability. As she tries to protect Talia, Kiva knows her weakness and takes advantage of it. Kiva is a snake, but that is expected from a man in his position. He is horrible, but great characters elicit visceral responses from readers.
An opportunity presents itself for Sable and her sister to escape Dockside. For various reasons I will not disclose because of spoilers, Sable leaves alone. She escapes with a troupe of traveling performers, who, along the way, become like family to her. It’s an unusual band of characters; Atticus, the leader; Thulan, the dwarf; Jae and Serene, husband and wife scholars; Leonis, an actor; and Merilee, the lead actress. While Sable is able to “know” when people are lying, Jae and Serene also have abilities. They can manipulate energy that exists in all things, called vitalle. They are quite powerful in their abilities, but using vitalle comes at a cost. It pulls the life energy of organisms that are around the wielder. Magic that comes with a price is always intriguing for me. The magic that is used comes from somewhere, and it’s easy to understand. It’s important that those using it understand the cost and use it wisely, and Jae and Serene know this. This magic system was very well thought out and added a nice twist to the magic system.
As they travel, they pick up a Kobold, Purnicious, a magical creature that refers to herself as a “magical artist”, and Andreese, whom the Kobold was with. Sable saved her life and Purnicious claims Sable as the one she will protect. Her magic is powerful, giving her many abilities, including popping in and out to gather information and other things they need. Purnicious was a charming character and added another layer of unusual magic. Everyone in the troupe is distinct and clearly have their own personalities. Reading their interactions was like visiting family. They are all three-dimensional relatable characters. They argue, they talk, they work well together, and ultimately care for each other. I loved the development of Sable’s character. She faces so much heartache and only wants to do right, but always feels she never has; always feels like a disappointment. Her sadness is palpable.
“That is the curse of life. Judging your past actions in the light of what you know now.” She tilted her head. “Give your past self grace, my child. She did the best she could” JA Andrews, Dragon’s Reach
While Immusmala may feel like a typical fantasy city, it is important to note some major differences. It does have the Dockside, the impoverished area where Sable and her sister live, and richer areas as well. However, the city is governed by three Grand Priories, living in the Sanctuary within the city. Each has an animal associated with her. The most powerful is the High Prioress, Vivaine, who has a silver dragon, and so she lives in the Dragon Priory. She is aloof, cold, and beautiful. The second most powerful is Eugessa, Priory of the Horn, who has a black unicorn. She lavishes herself with jewels and she is selfish. The Prioress of the Phoenix is the most kind, and her phoenix is always with her. They sanctuary is guarded by magic and the people of the city can only enter certain days of the year. The Dragon Prioress is particularly important, but again, mentioning to much of her would be giving away spoilers. It is enough to know that she is the most powerful, cunning, and in many ways, cruel. The idea of the Priories and their governance was an exceptional part of the world building.
The surrounding area of Immusmala, the kingdom of Tallus, has beautiful scenery of forests, mountains, rivers and smaller towns. Ms. Andrews paints a portrait that is immersive for the reader. As the performing troupe travels the countryside, we feel we are sitting in the wagons taking it all in. We are there at the performances in the small towns and camping out at night under the stars as they travel. It’s a delight for the senses. There are dwarves in the hills as well as elves in the forests. The troupe knows to steer clear of the elves, as they are not very welcoming to outsiders. Unfortunately, the beauty is broken by the Kalesh Empire, who are invading and burning towns in Tallus. It’s only a matter of time before the reach Immusmala.
The pacing and prose of Dragon’s reach was excellent. The story takes places a little over the span of one month, but Ms. Andrews never rushes the story. The prose is beautiful as we feel how Sable and her sister live in Dockside, vividly see the descriptions of the Priories and Prioresses, the countryside, the magic, and of course, the characters. It is character driven and there is little in the way of fighting and there are no battle scenes. However, the story is still so engrossing. From Sable’s time in Dockside, to her escape and eventual return, there was never a time when I was reading where I felt nothing was happening. Not every fantasy needs big battle scenes. Sable’s escape from Immusmala was fantastically written. It was full of suspense and heart pounding action. Would she get caught? How will she get to her sister? Will they leave without her? I think I was holding my breath until the wagons left and Sable was safe! This fantasy was moved forward by excellent character development, interactions, and the magic systems. There is quite a bit of subterfuge as well, which is essential to this story. Much of it revolves around Kiva and the Dragon Prioress. Again, quite a bit of that is spoilers, so I will not venture into it, suffice to say it will keep you guessing until the end.
Dragon’s Reach is easily one of my favorite reads. Ms. Andrews has a way of drawing the reader into her story and never letting up. Her writing is amazingly beautiful. She has created a unique fantasy that explores budding magic in her main character, Sable, while also incorporating themes of love, family, loss, and betrayal. The characters she writes are so realistic. Some you can’t help but love, like Sable, Purnicious, and the traveling performers. It was brilliant to have the acting troupe take in Sable, thereby saving her from Dockside, as it makes the reader clearly root for these characters. Others, like Kiva, are not likeable at all. He’s a character that can make your skin crawl with his deviousness and when Sable gets away, it’s a relief. Books need a balance of characters, both good and bad, and Ms. Andrews does not disappoint. Her character development ranks among the best I have read in fantasy. The book takes place over a short period of time, but it is never rushed and everything falls into place perfectly. That includes a major cliffhanger ending. It is also a nice touch to have several lovely illustrations of some characters that are in the novel. I love JA Andrews work, and I highly recommend Dragon’s Reach. I also highly recommend reading the Keeper Chronicles, a three book series set after the Keeper Origins.
Summary (from Amazon)
Sable, a reluctant thief from the slums, can feel truth when people speak. For years she’s been using that skill to try to break free from the vicious gang boss she’s indebted to.
Escape comes in the form of an odd set of companions:
-a dwarf running from the past,
-an actor with a magical, glowing tree
-a too-helpful kobold,
-a playwright with a knack for getting stories out of people, and
-a man and woman with suspicious, magical powers.
But Sable’s freedom is short lived.
On the edges of civilization, they discover hidden, terrifying lies in the offers of peace from the brutal Kalesh Empire.
Now, she must return to the city she fled, and along with her companions, attempt an impossible task—convince everyone, including the powerful Dragon Prioress, of the truth.
Except the Kalesh web of lies has ensnared everyone.
With her land, her people, and everything she loves hanging in the balance, Sable is the only one standing between freedom, and certain death.
Find out more about JA Andrews on her website at https://www.jaandrews.com/
Purchase merchandise, including signed books on her website here: https://www.jaandrews.com/shop/
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Purchase Dragon’s Reach on Amazon