From Goodreads: Eon has been studying the ancient art of Dragon Magic for four years, hoping he'll be able to apprentice to one of the twelve energy dragons of good fortune. But he also has a dark secret. He is actually Eona, a sixteen-year-old girl who has been living a dangerous lie for the chance to become a Dragon-eye, the human link to an energy dragon's power. It is forbidden for females to practice the Dragon Magic and, if discovered, Eon faces a terrible death. After a dazzling sword ceremony, Eon's affinity with the twelve dragons catapults him into the treacherous world of the Imperial court, where he makes a powerful enemy, Lord Ido. As tension builds and Eon's desperate lie comes to light, readers won't be able to stop turning the pages.
Anyone who knows me knows I am obsessed with all things Asian. (Hence the new theme to my website—science fiction and fantasy with Asian influence.) As soon as I got wind of Eon—a high fantasy set in an Asian-inspired setting—I had to get my hands on it.
There are so many things I love about this book. There are also a few things that didn't work so well for me. Since the goal of my book reviews is to focus on the actual craft of the writing, I figure it's okay to discuss both. As writers, I think we need to learn as much as about what does work as what doesn’t.
We'll start with what did work.
Using characters as metaphors
This has obviously been done before—the first book that springs to mind is Animal Farm by George Orwell. However, I read a lot of YA spec fic, and this isn't something I come very often. I think it's a difficult thing to pull off. In Eon, Allison Goodman pulls it off with wild success.
Much of the book is centered on the theme of self-identity, and how that self-identity does or does not mesh with the culture around you. The main trio of heroes does not fit into any conventional mold.
- The heroine—Eon—is a girl masquerading as a boy. She is at constant war with her feminine side. She must constantly monitor the way she talks, the way she walks, her posture, etc.—everything must portray “male.” She takes tea to suppress her period. If her true identity is discovered, she will be put to the death. (See the metaphor here? Be yourself and suffer the consequences. You must conform!)
- Sidekick #1 is a "Contraire," or a person with "Twin Souls"—aka, a gay man who wears dresses and has all the mannerisms of a female courtier. Because of the number of attempts on her life, she must have a body guard at all times. In some cultures, her Twin Soul status is considered good luck. In the court life of Eon, Twin Souls are considered base and sub-human, something to be wiped out. (Metaphor here—going against the accepted norm will only bring trouble down on you.)
- Sidekick #2 is a eunuch. To keep his masculine physic, he is forced to take the "Sun Drug"—a drug that brings out all things masculine. (Metaphor—if you're not manly enough, we've got a drug to help! We'll drug the womanly-ness right out of you!)
Each of these characters represents themes and challenges I think many people can identify with. In particular, I think these themes will resonate with its intended audience of YA readers. (Being a teenager is HARD! Trying to discover your true identity is even harder.)
The resolution of the story (which I won't give away) is tied into self-recognition and acceptance of self—even when that inner truth goes against societal norms. True freedom and power lies within embracing who you really are. Beautiful stuff here.
As spec fic writers, I don't think most of us aim to write stories intended for dissection in a literary theory class. That's what mainstream "serious" fiction is for, right? I found it incredible that Goodman was able to explore the theme of self-identity so thoroughly, yet still tell a fun-filled, high fantasy action-adventure.
Now for what didn’t work so well for me…
The delayed firing of Chekhov’s Gun
Here’s the Wikkipedia summary of Chekov's Gun as a literary device:
Chekhov's gun is a literary technique whereby an apparently irrelevant element is introduced early in the story whose significance becomes clear later in the narrative. The concept is named after Russian playwright Anton Chekov, who mentioned several variants of the concept in letters.
The phrase "Chekhov's gun" is often interpreted as a method of foreshadowing, but the concept can also be interpreted as meaning "do not include any unnecessary elements in a story." Failure to observe the rule of "Chekhov's gun" may be cited by critics when discussing plot holes.
Elaborations of Chekov's Gun, also from Wikkipedia:
"One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889.
"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." From Gurlyand's Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov, in Teatr i iskusstvo 1904, No. 28, 11 July, p. 521.’
"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." From S. Shchukin, Memoirs (1911)
In Eon, Checkov's Gun is the Mirror Dragon, Eon's personal dragon. The dragon is revealed very early in the book, but doesn't surface again until the very, very, VERY end. As a reader, I found this very dissatisfying. I wanted lots more time with the super-awesome beastie! In fact, I wish all the dragons (12 total) had more stage time. What I learned is that when you introduce an uber-cool/uber important element in a novel, you have to use it relatively soon. Dragging out the entrance and/or resolution of such cool things frustrates the audience and overall doesn't present a story that's as satisfying as it could be.
This actually helped me out with my current WIP. I have an important plot twist that I introduce at the end of the book. As I was working on outlines for future books, I didn’t plan to flush out the plot twist until the forth book. Now I see that would be a huge mistake. I need to follow through on the plot twist early in the second book.