Thoughts: Heart of the Dragon, by Gena Showalter

Oh my goodness, where do I start?

Let’s start at the beginning. Once upon a time, a husband found two incredible-looking books in a free bookshelf and brought them home to his wife. One day, the wife picked one up and read it, hoping for some frothy, trashy* fun.

This is what she actually got.

I’m really sorry, everyone, but in deciding to write these reviews I also apparently decided to slowly explore exactly what I want and don’t want in a trashy novel, and you, in choosing to read my aimless musings, have chosen unwittingly to join me in this endeavour.

Heart of the Dragon is a paranormal romance between a super hot Atlantean were-dragon (Darius von Dragon en Kragin) and a voluptuous yet elfin mortal human redhead (Grace Carlyle).

Darius is one of the two Guardians of Atlantis, were-dragons who make sure no humans come through either of the portals to the underwater island and kill any who do. He has a tragic backstory, as his entire family were murdered by an army brought through by the last human who came through unkilled. He also has basically zero feelings, and (it’s unclear whether this is a result of childhood trauma or the magical mist he’s guarding) sees only in black and white and can neither smell nor taste. Until he meets Grace, of course.

Grace is a spunky thrill junkie who has taken some time off from her flight attendant job to go trekking through the Amazon rainforest to find her missing brother (the brother works for an archaeological company which specialises in debunking or proving ancient myths).

So far, so good, right?

Here’s where the wheels fall off.

Gena Showalter is a successful romance author, which means she knows exactly what her readers want (to get to the action quickly). This is, unfortunately, not what this story wants. There are the bones of a genuinely fun paranormally romantic adventure story here, but it wouldn’t fit into the tight romance formula. Showalter made her choice, and I don’t think it was a good one. She whips through all the backstory I detailed above in the first thirty pages, and then it’s meet-cute time. This might not sound so bad – and in a less supernatural romance it probably wouldn’t be. But we have a character alone and lost in the Amazon rainforest, which deserves some time spent on it (!), and another character in literally a magical underwater island, about which we learn precisely nothing except that he’s a really terrible leader to the other dragons.

There is hardly any worldbuilding in this story, and what little there is just causes more problems than if there had been none at all. Almost every single detail just left me with questions at best. How are all the doors made of ivory in an underwater elephantless world, also probably too deep for walruses to dive to? Did there used to be trade between Atlantis and the surface world? Why hasn’t Atlantis destroyed the two portals? How do all the different species coexist on this single island when most of them seem to hate each other? Why are they all super trained for war when they frankly have no space for full-on war and will best benefit from a peaceful coexistence? How big is the island? Is it divided into multiple states or cities? If vampires are so evil, why are they allowed to wander around the market with everyone else, and why do they not cause trouble every time they do? How is Atlantis governed? Is there a dominant species? Are the Guardians considered political offices? Why would the dedicated Guardian also be expected to take on the role of organising the other were-dragon troops (especially when he is so bad at it, because he lacks empathy, is totally uncharismatic and doesn’t care at all about his troops’ emotional wellbeing)? What are the troops for apart from lounging around the palaces and fighting with each other? Why are women not allowed in the palace? Why are female were-dragons not considered good enough to be in the were-dragon army, which is sort of implied to be the defensive force for the whole island, given that a female were-dragon absolutely possesses the distinguishing features for defending Atlantis (turning into a powerful dragon)? Why is prostitution such a big industry in Atlantis? Is fraternising across species considered a niche lifestyle choice? How on earth did Atlantis get so full of precious jewels and gold when it’s suspended beneath the sea and has access to very finite mining resources, if any, and especially given that they are allegedly the worst mistakes of the gods? WHAT DO THE DRAGONS LOOK LIKE??? I’m not kidding, she never describes them aside from saying they have teeth, claws, wings, green scales and breathe fire. How big are they? Are they bipedal? Quadrupedal? Long-necked? Slim and lizardy? Big chemical reactions à la Peter Dickinson? Why did Showalter write this book if she’d not interested in any of this?!

I could spend (and have spent) hundreds of words just asking basic questions about the paranormal side of the world, but honestly, Showalter’s depiction of our contemporary human world isn’t much better, and the only reason she gets away with that is that we know how to read between the clichés to form a picture, because we are humans living in the human world. This falls apart whenever we go to the Amazon, because Grace seems not to understand how the Amazon works. As in, if your brother sent you a diary and magical pendant from there and then vanished off the face of the earth during his very secretive search for Atlantis, you are not going to have much luck finding him by going to Brazil, hiring a guide and just, what? Hoping you bump into him? She never really thinks about what a stupid idea this is. No one ever tries to dissuade her or explain to her how big the Amazon rainforest is.

This is going to sound like a really backhanded compliment, because it sort of is, but a big problem with stories where the female love interest is a normal human and the male one is some dangerous magical creature is that you can often spend huge swathes of the story being utterly furious with all the female love interest’s stupid choices (underestimating the male love interest’s immense powers, not trusting him, etc etc) but I will say that apart from the Amazon rainforest thing, I did not disagree with any of Grace’s life choices. She reacted in pretty much the only ways that a sensible person would react to all the crazy stuff that happened to her. This segues into the more negative flipside of this compliment: Darius was just a huge illogical mess of contradictions in super hot human form. Hardly anything he did made any sense. And we got to spend time in his head! There was just nothing convincing there. Basically, because he is Tragic Backstory Character Who Suppresses All His Feelings, his arc is to relearn how to have feelings through his love for the female lead. Unfortunately, his entry back into Feelingsville is complicated (not only does he have his childhood trauma to contend with, but his current lifelong job is to murder people at the command of magical mist, which may or may not itself dampen his feelings as time passes) and Showalter doesn’t seem able to show it very well. One minute he’s decided to kill Grace, the next he’s keeping her secret in his bedroom. One minute he knows he will have to kill her when their adventure is over, the next he’s calling her “his woman”. Also, his irrational jealousy extending to other male humans being near Grace, including her own brother? Not that sexy to me! Oh yeah, you know what else isn’t sexy to me? His casting a magical inhibition-lowering calming spell on Grace, then acting as though she has teased him when she starts spewing her pent-up feelings at him. Like, this is terrible, and it’s just there, unexamined. He seems to genuinely hate having feelings, but he keeps chasing them, and it’s just so flat. There’s nothing in between. There’s no reckless compulsion to feel things propelling him.

Which leads us onto the writing. I’m very much a sceptic when it comes to “show, don’t tell”. I think both are important, and I think it can lead to nonsensically purple descriptions which actually don’t tell us any more than a simple tell would. This is not a problem in Heart of the Dragon. Heart of the Dragon is a lesson in why people say “show, don’t tell”. “Workmanlike” barely even covers it. “Workmanlike” assumes some work went into it. I get that Grace’s voice is meant to be feisty and irreverent, but with no plot under it, it’s just underwritten clichés and exaggerated “oh nos” strung together over nothing. Darius’s voice is supposed to be all olde timey and contractionless (though it stops short of thees and thous) which just leads us to ridiculous exchanges where he asks Grace what is this human emotion you call eBay. This too is not amazingly well done, not helped by the terrible worldbuilding. As Showalter seems not to know how life in Atlantis really works, Darius has very little of interest to say or think. She skips right over things that might have been interesting, presumably to better get to the sexytimes. When Grace reads her brother’s journal, a very intimate part of him that is the only clue as to what is going on in Atlantis, Darius, whose head we are in, spaces right out and doesn’t listen, which means we don’t get to find out either. This is such lazy first drafty writing that I am speechless in the face of it. This is literally the plot and Darius von Dragon is too busy thinking about how great Grace’s voice is to let us have it.

Subplots get lost all over the place, everything relies on presumptions which are always 100% true and there are contradictions everywhere. How exactly does Alex (the brother) get a magical dragon pendant to send to Grace? Why doesn’t Grace read his goddamn journal before doing anything? (Why doesn’t she care when Darius throws it in a fire, given that at this point she doesn’t know if she’ll ever see her brother alive again, and also she clearly hasn’t read it very thoroughly before that moment?) Is the evil archaeological company really just in Atlantis to loot it for gold? Are you serious? Why does Alex decide that the hot dragon widow with whom he is imprisoned is actually good and not a honeypot, seeing as she does absolutely nothing to prove her intentions and nothing happens to change his mind? Are the Atlanteans really going to recognise a marriage between a dragon and a human, and are they going to let the humans’ relatives come and live with them in Atlantis? Will Grace and Alex’s mother and auntie even want to leave behind the human world and live forever in Atlantis? No one asked them! Also, there’s a decent stretch of the book where Darius is in New York wandering around knowing nothing and allegedly being out of Atlantis will weaken him, but what this means in practice is that occasionally he will wobble a bit, and then he’ll eat a chocolate eclair and be fine again. At the same time, he’s set his dragon BFF to cover his Guardian duties in Atlantis, which will weaken the BFF because the portal cave is cold and cold weakens dragons (SO WHY DO DRAGONS DO IT AS OPPOSED TO ANOTHER SPECIES WHICH DOES NOT HAVE THIS WEAKNESS? THERE ARE CENTAURS AND AMAZONIAN TRIBES IN ATLANTIS, THEY ARE PROBABLY PRETTY GOOD AT MURDERING ON DEMAND!) so Darius promises to be quick. Darius is not quick. Darius stays in New York longer than is good for him, which means he’s in New York longer than is good for his BFF. Darius does not spare his BFF a single thought, but that’s totally moot, because nothing at all happens to the BFF as a result of this great sacrifice. Presumably. Because we don’t hear from him again.

Languages. I can only assume that Gena Showalter has never learned to speak a second language. So Darius gets annoyed and casts a magical babelfish spell on him and Grace so they can understand each other. It’s unclear whether she speaks his language, he hers, or whether they can just understand each other’s respective languages. Darius can still communicate with unrelated humans in New York though, and they can understand him. So far, so slightly shoddy. But Alex the brother has been double-crossed by his company and locked in a cell with the aforementioned hot dragon widow, and she is learning English just from being in the room with him. They can have full conversations. With very few grammatical errors, wrong word usage or hesitation. In fact, when she is at a loss for a word and Alex says the word, she knows that his suggestion is the right word. How? Who. Knows. Why didn’t she just do a babelfish spell? Shrug!

So Darius has to ask what the human emotions called eBay, glasses, guns and chocolate eclairs are, but when they’re planning a break-in and Grace asks about the motion sensors and security cameras, Darius doesn’t bat an eyelid and is confident his magic can fool them.

This is going to sound really mean of me, but the body positivity stuff just seemed a bit, I don’t know. Shoehorned in? Belaboured? Tryhard? When Grace isn’t described as elfin she’s voluptuous and full of curves. She makes a point of denying herself food she wants, and this leads to the tiresome trope of the noble outlander asking why women of this land deny themselves pleasure, and oh my god coming from Darius the Emotionless Rock Man-Dragon it was so hypocritical I could scream. There was also a little needless dialogue between some evil mooks discussing her figure, in which one calls her fat and the other says no, no, she’s just not anorexic, and it felt so simultaneously “bad sexist men” and “unhealthy beauty standards”, with a dose of “she’s not fat fat, she’s just healthy” not-really-actually-body-positivity.

Those are most of my thoughts on Heart of the Dragon. I could keep going on, but much like the way the book itself ends, I’ll just cut it short now bye.

*We all know what I mean by “trashy”, right? I mean fun and outrageously silly and a delight to read and even more of a delight to explain to other people.

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