Alison Goodman, Eon: Dragoneye Reborn (Viking, 2008)
In a nation based on ancient China and Japan, the Emperor rules with the help of a council of Dragoneyes, men who have a bond with one of the nation’s dozen dragon spirits. Each dragon is connected to one year of the Chinese zodiac, so we have a Pig Dragon, a Rat Dragon, an Ox Dragon, and even a Dragon Dragon (known as the Mirror Dragon). Each year, a different dragon becomes Ascendant and increases in power over the others, and the Ascendant Dragon chooses one fresh apprentice from among twelve boy candidates vetted by the council. While there should be twelve Dragoneyes, in truth there are only eleven -- the Mirror Dragon having disappeared five centuries prior.
Eon, a young candidate for the position of Rat Dragon apprentice, desperately wants to be picked by the Dragon during the New Year’s celebrations, but knows it’s a long shot. First, because Eon is a cripple, and thus considered bad luck to look upon or associate with. Secondly, because Eon is secretly sixteen years old (the other boys are twelve). Thirdly, and most importantly of all, Eon is secretly Eona, a woman. In a deeply misogynistic culture, women are considered too selfish, flighty, and corrupt for Dragon magic, and Eon knows she will be killed if she reveals herself. But too many people (including the master who impoverished himself to train her) depend on her to be chosen, and if she’s rejected, she’ll be sold to the salt mines as a slave.
Eon enters the ritual for choosing to discover even more odds stacked against her, as it becomes apparent that Ido, the current Rat Dragoneye, has put measures in place to rig the contest to favour the candidate of his choosing. True enough, the Rat Dragoneye appears during the ceremony and chooses someone else, but before Eon can totally accept defeat, she finds herself chosen as well -- by the Mirror Dragon, mysteriously returned after five centuries and out of his own year, as well!
Eon’s victory is short lived. As the first person chosen by the Mirror Dragon in centuries, she has no previous Mirror Dragoneye to train her, and most of the scrolls and books regarding the Mirror Dragon were destroyed years ago. She also finds a fierce and unrelenting enemy in Ido, the Rat Dragoneye who now has to share his position of Ascendency with her thanks to the unprecedented appearance of her dragon.
Not only that, but Eon abruptly finds herself in the midst of a power struggle between the ailing Emperor, his half-brother High Lord Sethon, and Rat Dragoneye Ido, all three of whom have different agendas regarding the responsibilities of the Dragoneyes. And if that weren’t enough, Eon’s connection with the Mirror Dragon remains frustratingly uncertain.
While Alison Goodman’s plotting at first seems mainly concerned with putting her protagonist in as much hot water as possible, through Eon’s (admittedly difficult) struggles, the author explores a world of divisive politics, differing gender expectations, and a unique magic system based on Chinese mythology (a welcome respite from the Medieval Europe setting which seems to be the default for epic fantasies).
Eon’s outer turmoils take place across a vividly described and opulent setting, of gilded harems and extravagant dining halls and gardens constructed to shape and funnel the very real magical energy of the world in a manner similar to feng shui, and involve a varied, well-drawn cast of eunuchs, princes, ambitious politicians, and even transvestites.
An epic fantasy whose story hinges on a political system overdue for an overthrow is hardly new (just ask George R. R. Martin), but Eon: Dragoneye Reborn also succeeds as an intriguing analysis of gender roles and behaviour. Eon, a woman playing a man, treads the line in a nation where the genders are rigidly segregated (women even have their own separate written language), with males obviously in the superior position. More important, however, are the gender divisions that take place within Eon herself.
While at times the protagonist can be frustratingly indecisive and just plain cowardly, all her conflicts realistically derive from the one taking place within her between the man she wishes she was and the woman she can’t help being. I’ve read a fair amount of stories about women who pose as men (Tamora Pearce’s books spring to mind), where the cross-dressing women fight like men and befriend men, but remain inwardly confident of themselves and their female identity. Conversely, Eon bears a fair amount of loathing for her own gender, blaming the weakness and helplessness of femininity for the reason she has to go to such painful lengths to hide herself. When her bond with her dragon becomes inexplicably tenuous, she blames the supposedly weak feminine part of her she hasn’t managed to repress for her dragon’s rejection and goes to increasingly drastic physical lengths to banish it. While the attentive reader should realize fairly early on that Eon’s conclusions are wrong-headed, her actions are realistically motivated and understandable.
It is the depth of this gender argument that adds an extra spice of enjoyment to Eon: Dragoneye Reborn. A rich, varied, and exciting first part to Goodman’s duet (the concluding volume, whose very title contains spoilers, is forthcoming), Alison Goodman produces a work that builds on the tradition of splendid, adventurous epic fantasies that love world-saving battles on a massive scale, while at the same time maintaining a significant inner conflict in the heart of a realistically rendered protagonist.