A copy of this was received from Netgally in return for an honest review.
Everyone who knows D&D-style gaming knows the scenario - the group of adventurers gathering around a table in a tavern, learning about the latest quest that they'll all eventually agree to go on, in search of mysteries, money and fabulous magical items. The only difference is that instead of a young group of adventurers out to make a name for themselves, the crew in The Dragon Engine are already famous, their exploits beginning to drift into history books and awed legend.
Beetrax The Axeman has a map said to lead to the five fabled abandoned dwarven cities in the mountains - a place with lakes of molten silver, heaps of gems and - because sheer money would not be enough for avowed heroes of the realm - three jewels known as The Dragon Heads, rumored to have healing properties and grant immortality. So they're off - the band coming back together for one last grand hurrah before time takes the chance away from them.
I think the fact that this is a set of older heroes, of retired heroes taking one last grand adventure, is one of the things that really made this book sparkle for me. The world is full of strapping teenagers fulfilling their destiny through bravery and perhaps a bit if stupidity. And this book itself sort of pays a compliment to the way the younger generation must come up, and how the older generation can shape them. But the fact that these are adults, full-fledged adults in a fantasy world dealing with personal lives that are looking for more stability, made it stand out.
Our main character, more or less, is the previously mentioned Beetrax, also called Axeman by his friends. He's joined by his best friend Dake (a swordsman), Dake's wife Jonti, aka The Ghost (also a swordsman I believe), Lillith (some sort of magic used, mainly a healer), Sakora (a melee fighter) and Talon (an archer). And the interactions between these characters are one of the best parts of this book. They are people with history, some stated outright and some implied in more subtle ways. To take Beetrax as an example, his friendship with Dake is painted in the way the latter knows when to push the former and when to leave him alone; his history with Lillith is spelled out pretty explicitly; and his past with Talon, I don't even know because they are apparently friends and also apparently kind of hate one another. So who knows, maybe it's just how two very different characters end up finding a common ground, or maybe it's that they already have a common ground. After all, when it comes time to stand and fight, they're the two most likely to do it, the martial heart of an incredibly martial group.
Oh, and speaking of explicitly, just be warned - there's a lot of references to groins in this book. Groins are constantly being grabbed, punched, stabbed, squished or used in more violent or more... pleasurable ways. Lots of groins. You have been warned.
But much as I like the characters, the plot also kept me moving along. It's high-action stuff-never-goes-right stress at its best. By the time the group gets up into the mountains, I had a hard time putting the story down because stuff just kept happening, and I had to know how they would deal with the new stuff, and as they dealt with it, more stuff would happen. Situations get to the point where all seems hopeless, and the solutions, incomplete as they sometimes are (in a good way), never feel cheap.
I also have to give a shout out to the descriptions - all of them, but especially the dwarven cities, painted in a dark cast with their fire pots illuminating the deep delvings, the streets lined with metal trees. The fight scenes are also created to be crystal clear and splashed with gore, so you understand every stab and slash, every lopped off head and split spleen.
There were times I really wanted to give this five stars, but there's a few things that hindered it, for me.
First and biggest is that this isn't really a complete book. I understand that it's part of a series, but it's a pet peeve of mine when an individual book in a series doesn't have its own arc. It almost was - it could have been. There's a decision made nearly at the end which could have wrapped things up nicely, but since the decision had already been discussed and essentially made earlier in the book, it felt like they simply started the next phase of the story and then the book just stopped.
Also, every character pretty much gets a little bit of a backstory flashback. However, some of these feel more integral than others. For instance, when Dake was first introduced, I sort of expected him to be the group's leader, and his flashback, in addition to explaining some of his previous actions, also helped me understand why his bearing made him feel like the leader at first. But for other characters, it doesn't seem to have that much impact or connection to what's going on. Maybe it'll prove more important to later books.
Finally, there's this phenomenon in fanfic called "pair the spares." It's just what it sounds like - the author puts together the characters who have chemistry (in their eyes) and then, if there's two extras, they sort of end up together without having many scenes or showing terribly much chemistry. Others may disagree, but there was a couple in this who seemed to be together out of obligation. Again, I hope later books will justify it more.
Still, this was a highly enjoyable book, well worth reading. It's unapologetically fantasy - The good guys are our heroes, the bad guys are unabashedly evil, and there's adventures and fights and sneaking into people's homes while they're presumably out to take all their stuff. :D I thoroughly enjoyed it.