Sci-fantasy is apparently a new genre which mixes science fiction and fantasy - two genres which are often confused but which are utterly different.
Dragon of the Second Moon is Australian writer Christian Taamblyn's first novel and occupies this fresh, hybrid space, though leaning heavily on the latter.
THE GOOD BITS
Featuring linguistic flaws of the novice writer - choppy sentances, an excess of adjectives, and a few punctuation missteps - this book is nonetheless an engaging read. I've definitely read - and written - much worse, language-wise. My expectations that the protagonist, Alex (later renamed), would turn out to be a messianic character falling just shy of a Gary Stu were pleasantly unfulfilled. Mistakes, misunderstandings and hardships plague him as any fish out of water. Taamblyn's time compression of the character's learning curves are masterful - without being bored by every minute ticking past, we are given a few paragraphs of explanation which manage to express the amount of time and effort Zanderhall puts into his re-education. The bewilderment, wonder and loneliness of the character comes across well without making him a pathetic character. Learning a language, learning to fight, learning to use magic - these things all take time and effort (well, I wouldn't know about the last one but I assume so) and this is expressed in a realistic manner, rather than just "oh hey I picked up a whole vocabulary in a week and look at my awesome firebolts". It's nice to see a bit of realism trumping a faster-paced, action-packed story. Not to say this isn't fast-paced and action-packed, because it is.
The novel provides a thoughtful perspective on cultural divide, which has two peoples - magical and non-magical, essentially. The non-magical folk are suspicious of their counterparts, who have their ears cut to 'mark' them and are then ostracised. This segment of the population have formed nomadic tribes of people far more 'in tune' with the world than their stodgy, city-dwelling counterparts. The cultural and lifestyle differences that result are well-crafted and provide nice contrast.
Taamblyn weaves some stock fantasy archetypes into this story with accumen, providing some interesting new pespective which tailors the creatures to his world: elves, mermen, dragons, dryaads, were-creatures, even a Minotaur-like creature. I was continually surprised and delighted at how Taamblyn appropriated tried-and-true 'species', not completely deviating so that they were entirely new creatures with a new name, or just re-using the same-old; he really integrated them into the heritage and atmosphere of the story. They fit well, it wasn't just an "insert elf/dragon here" or worse, "well we'll call it a Minotaur because it's similar even though it flies against all of the preestablished norms of the creature" (yeah Smezzer, I'm looking at you).
One of the main difficulties with giving one race, or even a group of characters magic (or mar'jics) is that you give them a a rather large advantage over the non-magical folk. Taamblyn ties magic into mythology and makes it a skill, to be honed and practised, rather than some mystical, disconnected skill. Through the main characters' eyes, we witness some Eleran children being taught how to focus their innate powers (p102). It's a wonderfully crafted bit of world-building. Complicated, powerful magic takes a physical toll on the wielder, which means warriors still have a part to play, and necromancy is pretty much out of the question. These are sensible but often overlooked 'laws' of fantasy.
THE IFFY BITS
My only real disappointment is that Taamblyn has fallen into the trap that nearly all fantasy writers do: sidelining female characters and perpetuating ridiculous gender standards. Taamblyn sets up this seemingly equal society by giving the Eleran people a Queen. He promptly turns around and negates that with Sharna, a character whose sole function is Protaganist's Love Interest and Paragon of Sexual Liberty. Then there's physically dimunitave Kyanne (p152), and brash, outspoken Gail, who are the only two women pointed out among the fighters though in Gail's own words, "Scores of those going North [to fight] will be women. We will fare no better or worse than the rest, be treated as equals" (p316). This forward-thinking statement is immediately sidelined three pages later where we are treated to a voyeuristic affirmation of Gail's feminity, as she undresses in a tent, emphasising the "shapely curve of her ample breasts, even the fine definition of her waist, hips and legs" (p319). It just felt completely unneccesary and quite belittling to the character.
In two instances - there may be more, these are just the ones that stand out - senseless Western male stereotypes are also integrated into the story - Jahlam's refusal of a numbing paste on his ears before he was marked because "it was not the manly thing to do" (p94). That sentance infuriated me. Further on, a (male) character speaking of his lost daughter and grandson gets (understandably) teary-eyed. "He quickly turned his head to conceal his weakness" (p286). Sorry, what?! He's lost his family and he's upset. I'd be more concerned if he DIDN'T react emotionally. Why is this a 'weakness' when Kyanne cried "in heavy sobs" (p159) after winning the right to be a Loremaster? Hello, sexism which does not need to be in a fantasy book. I know I harp on about it a lot, but where there's magic and dragons and swords, is it really that difficult to have women fighting and guys crying and, y'know, aspects of social gender equality which are sorely absent from the real world?
Don't even get me started on page 212.
I was discussing these issues with my boyfriend, as I really do like the book and didn't want to be too harsh on it because of its shortcomings. He said, "honestly I don't think that most authors think about the gendered implications when they write. They're more focused on the characters as individuals and the plot movement." Which is fair and probably true, but like I said to him, the tent scene and the two statements about manliness and weakness stick out like a sore thumb. The book would have gone through several rewrites and the fact that those sections - not contributing to overall plot, storyline, or character development - are still there means that they were consciously included. I could of course be wrong, that's just the impression that I get.
Gendered stereotypes aside - and hey, these sorts of issues may not phase you, and fair enough, it's very common in the genre - I actually do like this book! I know I did a massive breakdown of the 'iffy bits', but that's what an English degree does to you. Makes you super-critical. When I met Christian at Supanova he seemed like a really nice guy. The sequel will hopefully be out soon, and I will definitely be purchasing a copy. If you can get your hands on the book (it's at Borders and online at his site) I'd definitely recommend it. For fans of sci-fi AND fantasy.