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'Dragon Heart' Is Epic Fantasy With A Gothic Air

At first glance, Cecelia Holland's new novel Dragon Heart is a straight-down-the-middle work of fantasy. (The dragon depicted on the cover might just be the dead giveaway.) But there's another genre lurking beneath the book's mythic, majestic surface, one that's equally as intriguing and far less expected: The Gothic romance.

All the requisites of the Gothic novel — straight from Horace Walpole's seminal 1764 Gothic romance, The Castle of Otranto — abound in Dragon Heart. It mostly takes place in a castle (in this case, the Castle Ocean instead of the Castle Otranto); that castle is a mysterious edifice full of hidden passageways, arcane architecture, and shadowy secrets, and it's populated by a royal family whose complicated politics are as tragic as the dreadful curse that's been handed down from one generation to the next.

Curiously enough, Holland isn't known for either Gothic or fantasy fiction. She's primarily a historical novelist, with dozens of successful books published since the '60s that are mostly set in Europe's or America's past. (That's not counting her lone foray into science fiction, 1976's underappreciated, future-feminist novel Floating Worlds.) Her historical fiction has occasionally drifted into the realm of fantasy — most notably her Viking-era Corban Loosestrife series — but even then it's set in the real world, albeit many centuries ago.

Dragon Heart, however, is Holland's first work of fantasy set in an entirely imaginary world. The Castle Ocean towers over an isolated, largely peaceful island that's being threatened by the armies of an encroaching empire. Princess Tirza — young, otherworldly, and unable to speak in anything other than unintelligible grunts — is abducted by a dragon while on a voyage with her twin brother Jeon, and the vivid dreams she has following her escape begin to haunt her. As those dreams draw her closer to the dragon, her link to the monster takes a turn toward beauty-and-the-beast empathy, although their relationship morphs into something more subtle, magical, and unknowable.

Tirza, while the main focus of the book, is just one piece in a much grander chess match. Widowed Queen Marioza, forced to marry a brother of the Emperor, is faced with a dilemma that pushes her fierceness to its limit. Oto, the son of Marioza's betrothed, sets his sights on one of Tirza's sisters, even as he schemes to ascend to the throne and restore order to a kingdom ravaged by assassinations and power struggles. And Pal Dawd, a lowborn imperial foot-soldier, finds his loyalties tested in a way that leaves vast forces hanging in the balance.

In a lesser author's hands, this would all be so much epic-fantasy boilerplate. But Holland imbues her tale with an elemental, archetypal magnificence that's heightened even further by her lush, Gothic atmosphere and mystique. Her sentences are exquisite, and she renders scenes of sex and death with poetic, visceral power.

Fans of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire might find some nagging similarities here, including, among others, a young woman with a preternatural connection to dragons and a royal boar-hunt that goes fatally, suspiciously wrong. But where Martin sprawls, Holland keeps this standalone novel concise and contained. Sometimes a little too concise and contained; at times the plot feels rushed, and with so many magnetic, indelible point-of-view characters packed into such a relatively short book, there's not enough time to spend with each of them. That's not enough, though, to put a serious dent in Dragon Heart's breathtaking, Gothic-fantasy spell.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

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