First in the Winterlands fantasy series but can be read as a stand-alone.
Publication year: 1985
Page count: 341
Publisher: Del Ray
Jenny Waynest is a mage, a healer, a midwife, the mistress of Lord John Aversin, and the mother of their two sons. John is Dragonsbane, the only living man, or woman for that matter, who has slain a dragon. He is lord in the small town of Alyn Hold and is charged with keeping the local people safe from raiders, robbers, the Whisperers, and the cannibalistic Meerwinks. He doesn’t get any support from the king of Belmarie, though.
Then the King sends a messager to summon John because a dragon has destroyed the Deep of Ylferdun where the gnomes live and has a lair there now. The Black Dragon is supposed to be a lot larger than the one John has killed and he’s reluctant to go. But when young Gareth promises him guards and gold to protect the people of Winterlands, he agrees to leave and Jenny goes with him. However, Jenny notices that Gareth looks guilty and refuses to meets John’s eyes so she suspect that something strange is going on.
However, Jenny and John soon realize that the dragon might be less deadly problem that the court politics. The King seems to be under the thumb of his mistress Zyerne who is a very powerful mage. Her malicious influence runs through the court. The humans also loath the gnomes and blame them for all their troubles. The courtiers see John and Jenny as amusements and northern barbarians.
Dragonsbane was probably a revolutionary epic fantasy novel in 1985 when it was published. The main character and her lover are parents and in their thirties, and yet on a quest to slay a dragon. John is still quite a quirky hero; he’s more a scholar than a fighter: he loves to read and hoards books when he can. He quotes from famious texts although he doesn’t necessarily remember exactly whose text he’s quoting. He wears glasses and is very practical about dragonkilling using poison and sneak attacks when possible. He also trusts Jenny and isn’t out to “protect” the “fragile” “beauty”. He also understands that Jenny’s first priority is magic, not him nor even their sons. Fantasy tends to have very romantic view about (romantic) love so this especially makes John stand out. He’s also a cheerful fellow.
Jenny suspects that if she hadn’t stayed with John she could have become a far more powerful mage. This thought haunts her still, especially now when John is heading to such terrible danger. She knows that her powers are limited. She also wonders if her old mentor had been too old to teach her properly. When she encounters Zyerne who is so much more powerful than she, she’s jealous but at the same time she’s afraid of Zyerne’s callousness and cruelty. Jenny doesn’t want to be like that. Like John, Jenny is very practical and living in Winterlands has taught her to be silent and adapt in order to survive. In a way, Jenny is a reluctant heroine; she goes with John willingly enough and is ready to help him when necessary but when she realizes that she needs to do much more, she does it even when she has doubts.
Gareth comes to the Winterlands as a young man with his head full of ballads whom he collects. He has a rude awakening to reality. John isn’t the shining (and rich) nobleman Gareth is expecting and dragons can’t be killed the way that the ballads claim.
Much of the plot centers on political intigue but the dragon has a large part as well and there are pretty intense fight scenes. However, Jenny’s character development is more central to the book.
The dragon is a very interesting character. At times, he was perhaps a bit too human but most of the time his priorities were very different from humans’. It’s mentioned in the book that nobody knows from where dragons come from.