Review by Sofox
I found this book for sale at a convention booth. The person behind the desk (not the author) was so nice about my harsh review that I decided to buy Book Two and give it a chance. I want to say one thing right off the bat: this book has more dragons than the previous one. That was one of my criticisms of Book One, and it wasn't the only one which the sequel has improved upon.
If you haven't read Book One, it's quite possible to skip it. One of my criticisms of the Book One was how too little was spread over too many pages, almost like an extended prologue, and Book Two gives you the general gist of what happened. In any event, the rest of this review will probably contain spoilers for Book One.
Book Two continues where Book One left off, with Arten having arrived in the city of dragons with Stekin, trying to recover from the last minute climax at the end of the previous book. Two things are set up: Arten has to find her place in the city, having fled all she has ever known. Dragons feed off the magic of certain individual humans known as Sources, and Arten is one. Meanwhile, Stekin is having to resume his place as Kaz (king/emperor/benevolent dictator for life) of the city having been absent for 13 years.
Between the two storylines, Stekin's one is definitely more interesting. It touches on the fact that saving people just to have dragons feed off their magic might just be exploiting vulnerable people. Stekin looks into Dragons mistreating Sources, and there's shades of Detective Noir as he tries to find more about what's been going on in his absence and a bit of "seedy underbelly" going on as we learn of things going on in the city that aren't being addressed. We learn a bit more about dragon society and customs, even if some of it isn't foreshadowed enough before it becomes relevant, and see Stekin take action and try to anticipate problems, some of which were of his own making due to his absence. It's good stuff.
Arten's story is a real kick in the gut. She's constantly blamed and criticised and snubbed, but a lot of it feels artificial. The entire basis of this city is Sources arrive in from the network, just like Arten did, and are given to dragons for them to take care of for decades. A city that operates on this basis should have a fully formed structure for integrating the sources: magic training, psychological support, orientation, everything to make sure the Sources are in best possible condition to live a stable life for years while "feeding" their dragon. Arten gets none of this, it's unclear if any of the other sources did either, and it makes every slight or insult against Arten incredibly frustrating. Yes, a thirteen year old newcomer doesn't know the customs of the city, but why are you getting angry at her when every other arriving Source has the same issue and is usually older?
The Compound society feels like a closed minded parochial village that's been there for generations rather than a glorified refugee camp of people who've been traumatised from having to abandon their life and make a dangerous life threatening trek. There should be countless people who can instantly relate to Arten on a base level, or know how much Arten is at risk of death both from mental and magical issues. Instead, no, they just treat Arten as an uninvited guest. At one point, Arten is criticised for looking too boyish even though female sources changing their appearance to look male is an established survival technique for making their way through the network. None of the other Sources talk about their experiences going through the network or ask Arten about hers, there's no talk of what to do if a Source is on the verge on burning out (a scenario they should be equipped for), no support group or social worker equivalents, and there's zero narrative consideration given to the fact that the Sources arrived from all walks of life and would have hugely different viewpoints, issues and skills settling in (no rivalries, factions, different religions, etc.). The Compounds continually feel like a monoculture that's been built up over generations rather than one that's fed by a constant population churn. Most of its inhabitants feel flat and shallow, formed to give Arten a hard time rather than developed to exist in their own right and interacting with the same world Arten is.
So I found it hard to be on Arten's side when a lot of her hardships felt manufactured for the plot and at the expense of learning a genuine understanding of this unique setting. As the book progresses, Arten reacts mostly like the traumatised thirteen year old girl she is; getting frustrated, angry, doing her own thing, which of course leads to more people giving out to her unfairly and criticise her (again, the abuse parallels). While she does have her moments, she's reactive for most of the book, feeling more like a victim than a protagonist.
A lot of her story is also her relationship with Stekin, which feels uncomfortably close to a romcom plot of "they want to be together but things keep getting in the way." Obviously the vast age and power difference between the two make anything resembling a romance deeply unnerving, but more to the point I can't get invested in Stekin and Arten getting closer together when it's super clear that Stekin isn't very good for Arten. He genuinely cares for Arten but aside from a bit of support he really doesn't have the skills/understanding to make her life better. He's bad at teaching magic control and didn't even try while they were trekking, he's reticent with emotions when Arten clearly suffers severe emotional neglect, and he's not good at helping her socialise when one of her biggest issues is connecting with those around her. That's even ignoring the multiple instances he makes a mistake that screws Arten over (and in one instance, turns around and criticises Arten for it). It feels like the book is constantly trying to entice us with something that does not taste good. I will say that unlike the first book, there is something of a resolution to both main character's plots. Some things are left for future books, but it feels like a complete package.
Like Book One, it's all fluidly written and the moment to moment is done engagingly. However, I have issues with the descriptions. If something is "beside a cliff" does that mean it's at its base or peak? The Compound, one of the city's three sections, has three circles, but at one point I wasn't sure if the circles were concentric. It might have been better to just include a map.
Regarding the worldbuilding, all three sections of the city have three economic classes, and it wasn't as developed as it could've been. Dragons finding out they could feed off Sources somehow saved their entire race from the Sundering, but I never quite understood how since a dragon seems fully capable of surviving without a Source. Exactly why dragons have to restrict themselves to the city is another point I felt I wasn't clear on. And of course the big one: What even was the Sundering? I get that some of this may be held back for future books, but some of this history is vital for understanding the city and setting as it exists now and the stories taking place therein. To add insult to injury, Arten reads through a big book on Dragon history, but we get barely any titbits from it.
And now lets circle back to the dragons. There are lots of dragons, especially in Stekin's part of the book. I would have appreciated them described a bit more as sometimes it wasn't clear if they were in dragon or human form when they appeared, but there's still some good dragon action. Dragons sticking their heads through windows, dragons towering over humans, some mid air fights and flying scenes. There's even a bit of dragon intrigue with some parts of the story playing with the dragon tendency towards manipulation and greed. It's all perfectly dragony stuff.
Dragon Bound is a definite improvement on the first book. Character depth may still be weak, but there's more plot, more resolution, more worldbuilding and definitely more dragons. There's still room for improvement, of course, and I know the author will live up to his potential.