Review by Sofox
Dragon Source starts with the protagonist puking up fire for the first time. You'd think that since this book has "Dragon" in the title that this means she's about to discover she can turn into a dragon; but no, the truth is more disappointing than that.
In fact, let's tackle this right here: There is a vanishingly small amount of dragons in this book. Barely any in fact. For the vast majority of this book, you're dealing with boring humans, or maybe a human that's "implied" to be far more but still presenting as human pretty much all the time. You can easily go through half the book and not even have a clue that dragons are even part of this story's universe, unless of course you decide to read the book's title, or look at any of the cute simple black and white images that head the chapters.
Which brings us to the book's universe, setting and worldbuilding, or rather, the lack thereof.
The book has an awful habit of barely describing anything outside of where what the story is currently focused on.
The book opens in a village. Is it a big village? A small one? On a trade route? Far from a major capital city? Who knows! Absolutely no details on the starting village are ever given. Only three buildings are ever described. Arten's (the protagonist) house, Arten's neighbours' house, and the temple. That's it, I could only ever imagine the rest of the village as a haze of mist.
Even what's described doesn't fill things out much more. Arten's house has got a shop built into it. Fair enough, common design. However, to go to her neighbours' house she has to dash through a forest on a mini trek. So if her neighbour isn't right beside her, that means that her house is isolated? In which case how is the shop getting enough traffic to stay in business? I was constantly trying to fill in gaps in my knowledge that the book simply wouldn't provide. Often the nearby forest gets described more than the actual village.
And this lack of worldbuilding/setting extends to the religion. To be fair, the morsels we get at the start are perfectly serviceable. Arten, after throwing up fire, now fears that the dominant religion will now find her secret. This religion has a "fight fire with fire" approach and if they discover people who are "Tainted" they burn them at the stake. Hence Arten, a 13 year old, is now in fear of her life over keeping the secret, and yet still has to go to the Temple every Savioursday (basically Sunday) and worship a religion that wants to destroy her. No relief from her family either. Her Dad's away at a fair and her Mum clearly puts the interests of the religion before those of her own child. So there's good tension there and not hard to find real world comparisons.
The problem comes more in the details: How prominent is this religion? Why does the population support a religion that regularly burns members of its population? Is there a hierarchy to this religion? Political system? Opposition? Alternative religions? Does it make any positive contributions to society that make people more likely to overlook its bad qualities? None of these are answered. The religion feels like a shallow antagonist. Basic motivation is given in terms of the religion wanting to maintain power and killing those that have it, but none of it is fleshed out to make it feel like a genuine organisation. Even its own history is rarely elaborated on, which is annoying since the protagonist has been going to the temple every week of her life. Surely she'd be able to tell us more of the religion's history. Instead all we get are some basic scraps about "five saviours" and a betrayal and that's it. Religions are a lot of things, but generally they have narratives that are straightforward enough to grasp to be passed down through several generations. We're not even getting that.
Fantasy books without strong worldbuilding can work, but the pressure then falls on the character and the story and that's where things get tricky.
Once again, it starts well. We learn of Arten, of how her mother seems emotionally abusive towards her with a priest-like person from the temple siding with her Mum, how she has trouble quelling the fire in her gut which she fear will get noticed, how this seems to be a setting where she doesn't have a choice in who she is married off to, and how she's now expected to look after the shop while her father and brother are away at the fair. We also learn of her neighbours, who have two kids she interacts with in different ways. One of whom is like a sister to her, the other of whom she used to be tight with until he distanced himself from her in a way that broke her heart. This person is Juro, and his character and the relationship he has with Arten are the most developed and nuanced we get in the whole book. And so this is about how the first third of the book goes, interaction between all these characters, Arten having all these struggles and learning to try to overcome them, some victories among them too. It's interesting enough.
Then of course, Artens worst fears about being found out come to pass, and she becomes a fugitive.
While Arten desperately having to leave all she's ever known does have tension, especially at first, the problem is that a lot of stuff built up in the first third of the book abruptly breaks. For instance, at the start I thought the constant abuse she was receiving from her mother would give her mental issues she had to overcome. You know: lack of confidence, guilt, feeling others are more worthy of life than she is, so on... but no, once she's on the run her mother becomes "out of sight, out of mind." There is no struggle against her mother's influence or bad lessons she may have learned from her; she just seems to leave all that stuff behind her when she leaves her village.
Another thing that gets left behind is the religion's influence. You'd think since she's a fugitive now the constant presence of the religion constantly gaining on her would be a source of continuing tension and story, but no, that whole aspect gets dropped shockingly early into Arten's escape.
There's a decent effort with trying to continue the element of Arten's relationship with Juro, but obviously it's hard since the two can't talk to each other anymore.
So what's left? Well pretty much just Arten and a complete stranger making their way through a bunch of safe houses.
The stranger is Stekin, and it's his relationship with Arten that forms the foundation of the rest of the book. Unfortunately, it's a weak foundation. Once again, it starts fine enough. Arten is weary of this stranger, questions his motives, wants to know what he wants with her belly fire, asks about where they are going. He responds with half answers which Arten doesn't fully trust, but decides she has no choice but to go along with him. This guarded uncertainty is a good way to start. Unfortunately, their relationship continues to stay exactly like this as they continue to travel together, often rediscussing the same topics over and over again with scraps of new information being revealed at a glacial rate and nothing that affects their overall goal. Their relationship seems to barely progress at all despite a huge amount of time and pages spent on it. Meanwhile, it's hard to feel any progress in their physical journey either. We the reader have been given no overall description of the geography, political layout or anything of the lands our heroes are going through. Like Arten we are stumbling blindly from safe house to safe house.
To be fair, the safe house network is kinda interesting, probably the most novel item in the book's setting. Basically, a series of isolated houses are secretly members of this network. Fugitives like Arten arrive at one such house, get a meal and a place to stay for the night, and next morning get directions for the next house. So on and so forth until their final destination. There is concern that not every node of this network is operating as it should since more fugitives are going in than coming out, and it's an interesting intrigue. It gives suspense since Arten isn't guaranteed safety going through this network, it develops her relationship with Stekin because he's her only backup if things go wrong, and it helps define Arten's character because she voluntarily decided to do this so others following behind her wouldn't be at risk.
It's good stuff, the problem is that that's all that's left of the book. This fugitive journey would have made a good middle part of the book. Instead, it pretty much comprises of the entire remainder of it. This means we spend the majority of the book journeying to a place we never get a proper look at.
There's a lot of stuff that could have been done to make the journey more interesting. Maybe if Stekin had given Arten lessons on controlling her belly fire so it doesn't randomly immolate her, or if Stekin had started regaling Arten tales from his long life that would help us learn more about him and the setting. But no, Stekin is one of those taciturn characters that rarely properly answers questions or reveals more about what's going on. This annoys Arten, but also the reader.
As for how our protagonist develops, when you look closely you can see Arten getting slightly stronger, but just like the plot, it's spread super thin over a huge amount of pages. Two people on a journey can make a compelling story, but not when they have the same conversations and events over and over again and barely anything seems to progress.
What really kills this book for me is that the characters and setting feel very shallow. The book never dives into anything of substance, a character never defies expectation (save Juro), things are nearly always what they seem to be at first glance, no major revelations that make you rethink things, and that's a death knell for a fantasy book that thrives on engaging your curiosity.
Of course, now I have to discuss the elephant in the room. The fact it has "Book 1" in the title, and yes, a sequel has already been released. So maybe all the revelations I yearn for are in the second book and the writer has just been holding back. Maybe that's where I can get more character interaction, setting development and dragons. If so, that just makes me more annoyed. I spent a bunch of time reading a book and I didn't get a full story out of it. If there's better stuff in Book 2, then either the story should have started with Book 2, or Book 1 should have been compressed down with the best parts of Book 2 added afterward. For all I know Book 2 might just give me a bunch of more disappointments that I'm expected to wait for Book 3 to get more development on, and so on and so forth. It doesn't help that after an entire book I'm still not sure what sort of journey Arten is on or where it may lead; the story could easily leap to a different track like it did right after Arten left home.
To be fair, the prose and moment-to-moment writing itself is fine. It's always clear what's going on; characters are very clearly described. Dialogue is good too, very easy to get the vibe of the characters as they speak and the flow of conversation, even if some conversations are repetitive. There's some nice nature scenes too. If something is focused on, you get a good sense of what it's about, it's only stuff on the periphery that's left maddeningly indistinct.
Overall Dragon Source is a book that really does drag-on. Wearing the sins of a "Book 1" fantasy, we get too little spread over too many pages. We get a perfectly serviceable beginning followed by a massive sequence that's largely about building up to the next book. There are things this book needs more of: More character depth, more story, more resolution and more worldbuilding. Also more dragons. Can't have too many dragons.