Wednesday, June 7, 2017

REVIEW | EON and EONA by Alison Goodman

Eon and Eona by Alison Goodman
Publication Year: 2008 and 2011
Genre: YA Fantasy
Series: Eon #s 1 and 2
Awards:  Book one was nominated for a number of prestigious mostly Australian YA Fantasy awards (Aurealis, Victorian Premier's Literary Award, The Inky Awards, James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor List)
Format: Audio (from Library)
Narrator: Nancy Wu

WHY?: I recently read the first two books in Goodman's adult fantasy series, The Dark Days Club, and really enjoyed them so I was keen to check out other things she had written. Plus - Dragons!

SYNOPSIS:  Eon is chosen to become one of the nation's 12 powerful Dragon Eyes, who through  magical links with 12 mystical dragons, help keep the nation safe from natural disasters and other disturbances.  Even more miraculously, Eon is chosen by the Mirror Dragon who had been missing for 500 years and he is placed immediately into a position of power and in the middle of a political struggle for power.  The only problem is that Eon is actually a girl, living as a boy which in the feudal Asian world he/she lives in, means sure death if she is found out.  Will she be able to keep her identity hidden and master her dragon-given powers in time to help the ailing Emperor and his brave son?  Will she be able to hold on to the goodness at her heart in the face of the immense power that is given to her?

SPOILERS AHOY!  Because I am reviewing both books there will definitely be some spoilers down below for book one Eon.  Proceed with caution.


Hopefully my ramblings on this thought-provoking series will be coherent.  I wrote pages of notes on the books which depending on your perspective is a good thing or a bad thing.  Any book that provokes lots of feelings and thoughts is usually worth taking a look at.  However, if many of those feelings and thoughts lean towards the negative end of the spectrum, can you really recommend the book?  In my case, I think these books have a ton of good stuff to offer the reader who likes to analyze characters so I think I do recommend them with the caveat that I spent much of book two in a cyclone of frustration.  Let me try to explain.

In book one we meet Eon, a young man on the eve of undergoing an important test which will have a profound affect not only on his life but also on those of his Master and all others in his household.  So, no pressure.  We learn quickly that it gets even more complicated because Eon is actually a 16 year old female, who has been trained by her master to live as a 12 year old boy.  On top of that Eon is also lame which in the society in which he exists is thought to bring bad luck and is tantamount to being a leper.  We also learn very quickly that she comes from an impoverished background but because she has the talent of being able to see into the spirit realm and see all twelve dragons there, a rare gift, her teacher/master adopted her, taught her to be a boy and has set her on the path to compete to be one of the powerful Dragon Eyes like he once was.

In this world, there is a spirit dragon that pairs up with each of the twelve zodiac signs in the Chinese calendar.  On a twelve year cycle each dragon and its paired human Dragon Eye is ascendant, i.e. the most powerful, and on the eve of the new year the old Dragon Eye retires, the apprentice dragon eye takes over and a new apprentice is chosen.  This is what Eon is competing for, to be the new apprentice Rat Dragon Eye.  There is a mysterious 13th dragon as well that disappeared from the spirit world 500 years in the past called the Mirror Dragon.  During the ceremony, the Rat dragon passes over Eon but the Mirror Dragon appears and chooses him, much to everyone's shock.

This is when the real adventure begins.  Eon is in the guise of a 12 year old boy but because there is no Mirror Dragon Eye he does not get the luxury of apprenticing for 12 years and must immediately take a seat on the Dragon Eye council as co-ascendant with the treacherous and sadistic Rat Dragon Eye, Lord Edo.  The beleaguered Emperor who is being sorely pushed by Lord Edo and his treacherous brother sees the re-appearance of the Mirror Dragon as a good portent and quickly recruits Eon to "fight" on his side.  Most of the first volume of this duology, focuses on Eon's struggles to figure out what is going on, who to trust and why he cannot call his dragon to him like the other Dragon Eye's can.  Without his dragon he is little more than a 16 year old girl, posing as a 12 year old boy, a hairsbreadth from a horrible death.

In Eona, Eon's secret is out and she is able to call her dragon but she still struggles with control and with knowing what to do amidst numerous forces buffeting her this way and that.  She is also somewhat addicted to the power of her dragon which brings her closer to Lord Edo and creates much distrust with her companions, Ryko, Lady Deela and Prince Kaigo among others.

Goodman does so many amazing and interesting things with this framework which, boiled down, is essentially a chosen one narrative.  Some of it works, some of it really did not for me.   First, here's what I really loved about the series.  The first book has a strong theme of identity, particularly of gender, in a very rigid society.  Eona's male personae of Eon is not just a costume she wears in a fun cross-dressing YA fantasy romp.  She truly lives as a male and thinks of herself as a male most of the time.  She is so convinced that her true gender is synonymous with weakness that she is unable to even conceive of the idea that their might be an advantage to living as a woman. And she is not the only character that illustrates the fluidity of gender.  Lady Deela is a trans-woman, revered by her people as a person with twin souls, both male and female and who is sent to the court of the emperor as a gift.  There her otherness is not so accepted, though the wise and open-minded Emperor gives her status and treats her well.  Deela's main guard Ryko is a eunuch, who takes the ancient Chinese equivalent of steroids to replace the testosterone and keep him muscular and he and Deela are secretly in love with one another.  Throw in the fact that Eon is lame which also places him outside of society's norms and that he is hiding his true gender and isn't entirely sure who he is and there is lots of fertile ground for the exploration of identity and false faces.  Goodman takes full advantage and produces a narrative that is thought-provoking and inclusive.

In Eona, the theme shifts to an exploration of free will and it unfortunately throws Eona just a teensy bit under the bus to do so.  Overall though both books have a strong feminist message and explore the  strongly emphasized themes well.

The other strength of this series is the world-building which is intricately presented and immersive.  The culture of the Dragon Eyes is fascinating and well developed.  The story as a whole, is interesting and provides plenty of opportunities for adventure and tension.

The place where I ran into some issues with this series is with the characters, who I found mostly pretty unlikable but not in an interesting way.  These issues mostly cropped up in the second volume but  were not completely absent in book 1. I spent much of both books, but particularly in Eona, wavering between wanting to defend Eon/Eona from her horrible "friends" and slap her silly.  She is, perhaps understandably, a pretty passive character.  She spends much of the two books being pretty passive, buffeted this way and that by all the events around her - always behind the eight ball and mostly clueless.  Understandable or not, I found it frustrating to read.  In the first book, I the reader figured out what the issue was between Eon and his dragon, hundreds of pages before Eon.  Reading about Eon being so COMPLETELY dense, despite the fact that he is pretty perceptive and intuitive about everything else, becomes tortuously frustrating. If this was to work, Goodman needed to be WAY more circumspect about the solution so that the reader is not watching Eon for hundreds of pages flail and dig his own disaster by being clueless.  It's frustrating and it discredits the character.
At the same time I would get frustrated with her allies for getting super angry with her for not knowing what she's supposed to be doing and for things that aren't in her control.  Cut her some slack, jeez - she's 16 years old and up to this point in her life, any independence on her part was awarded with a beating.  The fact that the books had me so frustrated with everybody was not, I think, a great thing though it's certainly better than all the characters being cookie cutter.

Part of the issue I think is that this takes the The Hunger Games approach to the chosen one trope and your mileage will vary as to how much you dig that.  I for one am boring and like my chosen one narratives to be heroic and the chosen one to be someone who is imperfect and somewhat back-footed but mostly proactive ala Harry Potter.  Books 2 and 3 of The Hunger Games Trilogy did not work for me because they imagined things too close to reality - so much so that when the heroine actually does something heroic it feels disingenuous.  So, I think what I am saying is that if you are one of the millions of people who understandably love the whole Hunger Games trilogy, I suspect you will not have the same issues that I did with Eon/Eona and the other characters.

The other more minor thing I struggled with is Goodman's penchant for detailed description. Goodman painfully draws out dramatic, action packed moments into pages and pages of overblown description.  I'm not sure how much of my annoyance at all the detail was the result of the reader who had a slightly overblown way of reading these tenser scenes.  My problem with this is especially  interesting because one of the major negative remarks about Goodman's Dark Days Club series was the slow pace with too much detail and I defended it there because I thought it fit with the Regency Era English setting.  Now I am feeling those critics' pain.  Every time she slowed things to a crawl describing every little detail of every thing that happens during scenes that are meant to be fast paced and action packed, I found myself screaming both internally, and sometimes at the cd player "get on with it!!"  I guess that's one way to create tension in the reader:).     

FINAL VERDICT: Overall, a pretty mixed opinion of this series but I would recommend it, especially to people who love The Hunger Games Trilogy. Even if you weren't, it's worth checking out but be prepared for some possible frustration with the characters. I liked the first book a good bit more than book one but the two are integral to one another so not sure that matter.  3.5 out of  5 Stars.

OTHER OPINIONS ARE AVAILABLE: Eon - Fantasy Book Cafe | Eona - Fantasy Book Cafe

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