Took me a bit longer to finish this book than I hoped. Still, I got there in the end, so it’s time for the my review.
Full Disclosure: I was provided with an e-book of this novel by the author for review purposes. This has in no way influenced my opinion of the work, and this review is a full, fair and honest accounting of my thoughts on it.
The First Tail
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
From the Amazon.com blurb:
I don’t have a brother “You do actually. Me. My dad told me about you. You’re not really my sister, of course, but our destinies are entwined or something. We’re going to rule the world” Alice has a battle ahead of her, but she’s a long way from ready to do it. To fight the forces working against her, she must die, find her brother, avoid her sister, discover the secrets behind her parents’ bizarre relationships, and die again. And again. And if she’s going to win, there’s going to be a lot of bloodshed, and not all of it will be on the losing side.
The First Tail is Canberra author T.J. Burgin’s first novel, as well as being the first book in the Tails of Two Dragons trilogy. The book caught my eye during the opening weekend of Jolt Games, since there were a few copies for sale on the counter there. The owner, Luis, introduced me to Ms Burgin at some point that weekend, and we arranged for a review copy of the book to be sent to me. unfortunately that was a few months ago, and between work and some other commitments I only just got to reading it recently, so I really have to apologise for that. I wrapped it up mid last week, and figured I should get this written as soon as possible. Sadly I didn’t particularly enjoy the book, but please bear in mind that the following is simply my opinion, and that depending on your tastes, the story may well suit you far better than it did me. As always, minor spoilers may follow.
Given the name of the series, I think I was expecting something similar in concept to Mercedes Lackey and Andre Norton’s Halfblood Chronicles, or the Council of Wyrms setting for Dungeons & Dragons, where the main characters are actually dragons (okay, the actual main character in the Halfblood Chronicles is a half-elf, but there are a lot of important dragon characters). So I was caught by surprise when I found out on the first page that Alice, the protagonist, is actually part of a human-looking race of immortal shapeshifters known as Spooks. Spooks apparently have nine lives, with the ninth life being where they become truly immortal. In the introduction, a prophecy regarding two dragons fighting is presented and attributed to Merlin. Where the dragons actually come into it is that only certain Spooks are able to become mythical creatures, and those who can turn into dragons are called Draconi. I’m not yet clear on if there are Spooks who can turn into other mythical creatures, such as unicorns or griffins.
The story proper opens in 1849, in London, as Alice escorts the eldest daughter of the family that she acts as a governess for to her debutante ball. Tragedy strikes during the ball, and in protecting her charge and the other young men and women, Alice loses her life for the first time. Once again, this blind-sided me a bit. I thought there’d be more build up, but it happens very quickly and moves on. It took me a little while to figure out that this seems to be the core of the story. Dying and resurrecting is what really pushes the plot along. It’s not an instantaneous process, so each time it occurs a seemingly random period of time has passed (it could be years, or months), and each time she awakens, Alice needs to find out what’s happened while she was away, as well as discovering how her powers have changed. Additionally, each death is accompanied by a brief flashback to Alice’s childhood, providing background on her upbringing. Once I got a grasp on this and realised that the book wasn’t about dragons in the traditional sense, and that there was going to be a lot of time skips, I actually found that I quite liked it as a concept. It’s an interesting take on immortality (a kind of cross between the idea of cats having nine lives and the Chosen from Traci Harding’s Ancient Future trilogy, who have to die before their immortality gene can kick in). The idea of Spook magic changing with each death works well too, as it allows their abilities to be introduced gradually as Alice discovers them. Overall the concept really did intrigue me.
The characters are where I started to run into problems. Alice I quite liked, at least at first, but most other characters grated a bit with me, with the exception of Sam, who is adorably sweet. I think my biggest issue was that their personalities seemed to have massive shifts at the drop of a hat. The most obvious examples are Gwen and Blake. Gwen starts out seeming a bit out there (which makes sense due to certain parts of her character I won’t mention right now) but still very clever. I figured she was being set up as a mentor character, but not long after meeting Alice and beginning to live with her and another Spook, she throws Alice out of the house due to a magical accident. No attempt to understand what happened, no asking for Alice’s side of the story, just rage and exile. Later on there’s another sudden shift in her character, but given where and when that occurs, I assume that will be explained in the next book. Blake is a little different. At first he seems aloof and cool, the handsome popular kid in the school who really doesn’t have time for anything that doesn’t interest him (I hate to admit this, but my mental image of him is pretty much Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen). But as soon as he discovers something important, he becomes like an eager, naive puppy, all enthusiasm and goofy quips. Much like with Gwen, he later shifts personality again, becoming obsessed with killing another character in the most gruesome way possible, which Alice and another character simply take in their stride as if it’s something they see every day. Alice does comment on the fact that he’s made a mess, but even the comment about how sick it is seems to be made in an offhand manner. As for Alice, I don’t so much not like her as not understand her motives in a lot of cases. For example, quite early on, Alice finds out she has a half-sister, who she instinctively doesn’t seem to like, and who wants her help to find their father. Alice also doesn’t seem to like her father very much, but for some reason she drops everything to help, though she grumbles about it all the while. I just don’t understand why she would go so far out of her way when she was happy with her life at that point, and had seemingly no feelings of familial love or obligation to require her to assist. She even makes a point of intentionally referring to her sister as half-sister, to drive home the fact that they aren’t true sisters. So why even temporarily leave those she cares about to assist someone she doesn’t even like?
The story is written in the first person, using past tense, as a tale being recounted to someone Alice knows. It’s a style I’m rather fond of, and I quite like the effect, with Alice having little comments aside to explain certain elements of the story. That said, there were some quirks here and there that kept pulling me out of the story. For example, as the Spooks are functionally immortal, at least a few of them are thousands of years old. The way they talk doesn’t really seem to bring that across though. I’d have expected more formal speech patterns. If they’re supposed to have picked up on modern style and habits, then that’s fine, but in that case I’d have expected them to be better adjusted to modern life and have more of an understanding of how to act natural. For example, when living with Alice, Gwen and Livia mention that they picked up ideas for how to live from a “documentary” about a spook being trained to kill bad spooks. The description they give quite clearly indicates that it’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Alice is understandably exasperated by this, but I would have thought that they would have figured it out on their own (Buffy doesn’t exactly fit the image of the Spooks I’d built up from the information presented). Also, when did Alice learn about Buffy? There’s never any mention of it that I can recall, and during the time period that Buffy would have been on, Alice wasn’t really in a position to be watching it. There’s never even a mention of her watching television at all that I can find. I could write some of this off as Alice being an unreliable narrator describing things in a way that will make sense to her audience, but there’s nothing that really suggests this is the case.
The other issue I had was with the way Spook powers were explained. The shape-shifting is explained well, as is the aura manipulation, but other elements feel ill-defined, like the libraries. Apparently each Spook has a library that contains their Lore, as well as numerous other books related to their lives that contain information about them, their bloodline, and the events that impact on them. But there’s never really an explanation for the libraries themselves. How do the books arrive? What determines if they’re relevant? Is it a physical place, or entirely mental? In at least one instance, a new idea was introduced and explained by referencing something else that hadn’t actually been explained yet, leading to my scanning back through the pages in confusion, trying to figure out what I’d missed. It wasn’t until thirty pages or so later that I found an explanation for the concept that was used to explain the earlier event.
Probably my biggest issue is the pacing. It’s odd, but I kept getting the feeling that while a lot was happening, not a lot was being accomplished. By the end of the book Alice and her friends are aware of the prophecy, and of the group that is opposing them, but they don’t seem to have gotten much further than that. I realise this is only the first book, so there’s two more to go, but I couldn’t shake that it felt more like a really long prologue to the story proper than a vital part of the story in its own right. Then there’s the fact that a lot of elements of the story get a lot of build up, only to be over extremely quickly. Take the school for example. A big deal is made of Alice being enrolled, getting ready for her first day, going to buy supplies, and being shown around by Blake. Normally I’d figure that means it’s going to be a significant part of the story, but on the second day, she cuts class and never goes back. This happens a few times throughout the book.
All of that aside, I think the story has a lot of promise, and I’m interested in seeing where it goes. The concept intrigues me enough that I would definitely read the next book in the series to see if it grabs me more. Additionally, some of the descriptions are really strong, and gave me a really clear mental image of what I was reading about. That’s always a plus for me.
So, would I recommend The First Tail. Not unconditionally, no. But if you’re interested in a fantasy novel that doesn’t rely on the usual tropes for fantasy races (elves, dwarves and so on), as well as having a fairly fresh take on the concept of immortality, then I’d say it’s worth giving a try. It also bears mentioning that my usual fantasy novels are also either relatively traditional fantasy, like the Pathfinder Tales novels, or urban fantasy with a black comedy and/or noir flavour to them. So it’s entirely possible that this just wasn’t the kind of book that was meant for me, and that others may enjoy it far more than I did.
You can find more information about The First Tail and the Tails of Two Dragons trilogy on Facebook. The First Tail is available for purchase from Amazon and Angus & Robertson, or, if you’re in Canberra, you can pick up a copy from Jolt Games in Mitchell.
Written while listening to Sleepmakeswaves. Yup, I’m back on a post-rock kick already.
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Next update from me will either be the next part of A Fistful of Roses, or a review of Josh Vogt’s urban fantasy novel, Enter the Plumber. Additionally, my friend Evs has written up his first post, a painting guide for Warzone miniatures, so that’ll be posted sometime soon.