REVIEW: ASCENDANT (SONGS OF CHAOS #1)
HOW I RATED IT
4/5 While I didn't love every aspect of this story and didn't always click with the writing, there is such a deeply compelling tale that is told here about memorable characters who go on a satisfyingly creative adventure.
The young Holt serves as our main protagonist for this story. He's the son of a humble cook who has grown up as a member of his society's lower class and longs for a life that is more glamorous, namely that of being a famed dragon rider for an illustrious order, even though those of his social station are rarely granted such an opportunity. Holt serves as a good main character, being both a realistically portrayed teenage boy, but also an empathetic and idyllic hero that is easy to route for (a balance I find is not easily struck in younger characters with them often being too annoying to really get behind or too mature to be believable). Supporting him are the ex-princess Talia and her dragon, Pyra as well as a former rider who lost his dragon years ago named Brode. Brode is initially the more interesting of the two companions as his gruff exterior betrays a darkly emotional background that I was fascinated to learn more about. I also enjoyed seeing the layers of Talia's icy countenance melt back to reveal the complexity of her true self. Given that this is a dragon rider story, it should be no spoiler that Holt also has himself a dragon friend whom he bonds to. While the dragon's name might be considered a bit of a reveal, I found myself pleasantly surprised that the dragons in this story play just as big a part as their human counterparts. This is as much a story about Holt's dragon as it is about him, thanks in part to how the power they share is directly linked to the strength of their personal bond. The dragon characters also helped things from keeping the cast from feeling too tropey. Holt is a brash teen with a quick temper, but a heart of gold. Brode is a gruff old man who's secretly a big old softie and fits the designated mentor role. Talia is the ice queen with a hidden sensitive side. I will say that it didn't necessarily bother me that the characters fit these classic molds, though some may find it distracting. This is in part because of how well this type of characterization is executed and partly because each of them has depth beneath their archetypes that readers will likely find surprisingly compelling.
Without spoiling too much, I will say that I was immediately pulled into Holt's story and found myself delighted at how quickly things got going. The narrative makes short work of bringing our heroes together and sending them on an adventure with high stakes, loads of action, and plenty of great character moments in between. On the surface, the main point of conflict might seem a little basic with our heroes going up against an infectious blight of insect-like monsters and zombie-like revenants. While I didn't mind the STARSHIP TROOPERS type of plot in a fantasy setting, I was also glad that the story reveals that things are a little more complicated then they may seem and introduces some interesting questions about the central power that is affecting the balance of the world. Similar to how the characters all fall into familiar molds, the narrative structure will also feel quite familiar with the surprises mostly being found in the little bits of worldbuilding and lore that are unveiled over time. Sometimes this familiar type of storytelling can be quite comforting, though my enjoyment of it heavily depends on how well it is executed. Thankfully I enjoyed each moment of this story. There wasn't any section that I would consider "the slow part" nor were there any moments that felt overly indulgent. There are definitely some dark undertones to the story, but I think things are kept wholesome and clean enough for readers of different ages and interests to be able to enjoy this. I also really appreciated that this book didn't leave off on some absurd cliffhanger. While there is definitely a strong lead in to the next adventure, I found the conclusion of this one to be quite satisfying as well. Whenever a story can entice me to continue with the series while not making me feel like I am just being manipulated or cheated in some way, I think that is a huge positive. That's not to say that everything worked perfectly for me though. There were certain, stylistic things about the writing that didn't always click with me and I get really annoyed by the trope where no one ever believes the main characters for whatever reason, which is a narrative device that is used and abused here.
Although the world that this story is set in is fairly typical of the fantasy genre in some ways, I also found it to be rather surprising in others. Throughout the course of the story, we will mostly stay within one particular region, though there is still a good variety of locations that the group travels to and places outside of it will also be mentioned. The world consists of humans, dragons, and the blighted monsters that terrorize both races. Whether other races exist remains to be mentioned, but I found myself happy enough with things being kept to humans and dragons. When it comes to the human population, society is further broken down into the rich and the poor with Holt being part of the lower class while Talia and Brode are members of the upper crust. The themes of social structure and the haves vs. the have-nots is are well-trodden, but because they are such an integral part of human history as well as our present, I feel like they never really get old. Holt's standing within society is also handled in an intriguing way with him sort of rising in station given his bond with a dragon, but also not changing at all in other ways given the unusual nature of their bond.
While it would be a spoiler to get too deep into specifics, this world has an interesting history that is slowly revealed. Most of this is courtesy of a population of "wild" (rider-less) dragons and their mysterious guardian. The hidden truths about the blight and the origins of how dragons and mankind came to bond were fascinating and sort of re-contextualized some things for me. There is also plenty that is left cryptic, particularly when it comes to the "big bad" and some of the other groups of wild dragons (not to mention all the questions about Holt's dragon that remain unanswered). The way the magic in this world works was also a fantastic hook as I found myself deeply invested in the fast escalation of the power of Holt's bond with his dragon. I've been told this has elements of LitRPG or Cultivation Fantasy and I can see where that's coming from, but I also feel like those elements are handled in a much more subtle and enjoyable way, so I wouldn't let those terms dissuade you from picking this up if those subgenres aren't your cup of tea.
Though this isn't the longest fantasy book, listening to it on audio did allow me to get to it sooner than I would have otherwise. The narration is expertly done and I loved all the voices that were chosen for the characters, especially the dragons. Sometimes the audio performance can outshine the story being told to the point where it elevates it beyond what it would be otherwise. This is not the case here, instead I felt like the recording was the perfect complement to the narrative, giving me a truly equivalent experience as I would have had if I'd read it visually. This is an impressive balance that not all audiobooks strike, so I though it would be worth mentioning here. I will most likely be continuing with the series in this format.
If you like dragon-rider fantasies, classic fantasies, or just fun adventure stories, then ASCENDANT is a must-read. If you are on the fence about which format to read it in, then I would say that the audio version is an excellent option.
(+) Holt serves nicely as the story's main protagonist
(+) The younger characters are portrayed in a realistic way without being too annoying
(+) Fascinating worldbuilding and lore
(+) The way magic works in this world was super interesting
(+) Exciting action scenes that never get too hectic
(+) A satisfying ending that also nicely sets up the next adventure
( ) Though competently executed, the three main characters feel into somewhat tropey archetypes (this was not a negative for me, but it may be for some)
(-) There are specific stylistic things with the writing that didn't always click with me
(-) Certain tropes (like nobody believing the main characters) annoyed me slightly.