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Book Review: The Dinosaur Lords

By (August 10, 2015) No Comment

The Dinosaur Lordsdinosaur lords cover

by Victor Milan

Tor, 2015

There’s a curious kind of magic – a glorious but almost entirely unfair magic – that accompanies the book-hook, the book-gimmick. The better they are, the shorter and stickier they are, the more of the work that more properly belongs to the bulk of the books themselves they can shoulder – conveniently, but fraudulently. Writers of a certain stripe used to drink in order to prep their synapses for the receipt of such hooks. Old-style gag writers and sitcom hacks would keep spiral-bound notebooks on hand day and night, hoping for a gift from the lowest-rent Muse in the muster. And it’s easy to see why: a golden hook can leap immediately past all the mental barriers the average book-buyer has in place specifically in order to prevent impulse-buying. When such book-buyers encounter a new book, their barriers are fully up: is the book trailing a long back-story they’d have to learn? Does it complain complexities that might daunt a leisurely weekend? Is the concept too tough to take on board? In short, that quintessential book-question: what’s it about? A golden hook can bypass all of those cautions at a single glance. A giant killer shark terrorizes a coastal city? A corporate lawyer turns against his firm? Mars attacks? Gold.

Long-time science fiction/fantasy author Victor Milan’s new book has a brutally, glowingly great hook, and it’s one most succinctly summarized by none other than George R. R. Martin right there on the book’s front cover: The Dinosaur Lords is “like a cross between Jurassic Park and Game of Thrones.”

It’s almost – not quite, but almost – sufficient to stop reading the book right there. That’s both the glamor and the grotesquerie of the golden hook.

The whole question of such books is simple: does the lucky, lucky author, in possession of such a lethal gimmick, feel any moral responsibility to provide anything more? There’s technically very little need. Once Tucker Max has given his readers the old vomit-in-the-one-night-stand’s-hair, he just needs to keep providing that same thing to his key buying demographic until he’s old and feeble. Once you unveil to your readers that the aliens are giant cats, the twenty sequels all but write themselves.

Milan is a hack of the very oldest school. He’s never turned down a book-contract, never missed a deadline, and likely hasn’t the foggiest idea what “writer’s block” is. When he came up with “knights riding dinosaurs into battle,” he had to know he could simply call it a day if he felt like it. So it’s enormously to his credit that there’s a lot more going on in The Dinosaur Lords than there needs to be. The many thousands of readers who, their barriers bypassed, will buy this book on the strength of “Jurassic Park meets Game of Thrones” will be delighted to find much more to it than the greatest hook of the year.

It’s the story of a planet called Paradise, where Milan has crafted a society vaguely resembling an alternate version of the Italian Renaissance in which the Spanish Empire, Nuevaropa, is the dominant power among the nations, all of which share the world with a handful of vaguely inimical, terrifying supernatural beings – and with dinosaurs, which here have evolved alongside humans and other animals and are fully incorporated into societies on all levels, as beasts of burden, pets, prey animals, and, in the marquee role, as weapons of war.

Milan cannily splits his narrative between the large-scale political and social maneuverings of the current school of epic fantasy and the small-scale military company adventures in the school of Joe Abercrombie. The linchpin of the larger storyline is the current occupant of the Fanged Throne, Emperor Felipe, and the smaller-scale storyline is populated with a handful of colorful characters like dragonmaster Rob Korrigan, shattered dinosaur commander Karyl Bogomirskiy, and the Imperial Champion Jaume, a military genius and poet. Milan sketches these and two dozen other important characters with caustic wit and a very appealing complexity – this is a book almost entirely devoid of one-dimensional figures, which is something of a rarity for this boom genre.

Milan can’t resist the lure of the lurid. His book is stuffed with military set-pieces (if you’d thought up dinosaur-riding knights, you’d stuff your book with such scenes too) that tempt our author to roll out lines like “The air was thick with the screams of men and monsters, and a clangor like the biggest smithy on the world called Paradise, as it was with rain and the stench of spilled blood and bowels.” And his descriptions of his militarized dinosaurs are likewise confections of pure, delectable junk:

Standing in formation across the river, the three-horns sent up a peevish, nervous squalling. A rain squall opened to reveal what now stalked out in front of their ranks: terror, long and lean, body held level, whiplike tail swaying to the strides of powerful hind legs. In Rob’s home isles of Anglaterra they called the monster “slayer”; in Spanol, “matador,” which meant the same. In The Book of True Names, they were Allosaurus fragilis. By whatever name, they were terrifying meat-eaters, and delighted in preying on men.

The Dinosaur Lords is of course going to have a sequel, probably many, and it deserves them. Knights riding dinosaurs! Who wouldn’t want sequels?