House of Dragons is a book with ‘dragons’ in the title that’s actually about dragons, which bitter experience has taught me isn’t a given. It’s also a fantastic read.
First of all, there’s a map at the start of the book. Honestly, need I say more?
House of Dragons is the third novel from American author Jessica Cluess. Listed on Goodreads as the first in a duology, it has a ferocious plot that it navigates with speed and intricacy. It’s exciting, it’s fast-paced, and – no spoilers – if you can get to the end of Chapter 5 without your jaw dropping, I’m a little afraid of you.
In fact, every time I thought I could predict where this plot was going, it would twist on me in the most satisfying way. Nothing was done purely for shock value, but I was still repeatedly left wide-eyed as I read.
The book centers on a struggle for the throne in a fantasy world, fought between five young adults. Only one of the five can win, and the rest of them will be killed. If the recently-released addition to the Hunger Games series has whetted your appetite for a high-stakes battle royale, this might just scratch your itch.
The beginning of the story is a little hurried, but still manages to give us clear windows into the lives of the five protagonists. Even after just one chapter spent with each of them, their characters and motivations feel sharp and distinct.
Emilia, the loner with her forbidden magic.
Lucian, the war veteran who has taken a vow of peace.
Vespir, the servant in love with the Princess she serves.
Ajax, the irreverent and illegitimate son from a family he despises.
Hyperia, the eldest daughter forged by her family into a weapon of cruelty and destruction.
Each character has their own depths and conflicts. In particular, I enjoyed Lucian’s battle with himself as he seeks a future of peace, when it’s in war that he excels. Hyperia’s principles and honor are the perfect counterweight to her ruthlessness.
None of them are too perfect or too evil to feel real, and all of them have complex motivations that kept me guessing about what they’ll do next. Cluess handles the ensemble cast of characters well, though Ajax has the clearest voice and sometimes with the others it was possible to forget whose point of view I was reading.
Emilia’s chaotic magic, and the lengths that she’s been forced to go to in order to hide it, will bring a strong element of pathos for readers from marginalized communities. At the start of the story, she’s Elsa from Frozen, but with more blood on her hands. Emilia’s family, and Emilia herself, think that she was “born evil”, recalling the treatment received by many neurodivergent people in our own world – and with Emilia described as having very intense and unique interests, speaking too loudly at times, and also stimming to calm herself down to avoid magical outbursts, there’s a strong case to be made that she’s coded as autistic.
There is queer representation in the book, with one of the protagonists confirmed by the author to be a lesbian. It’s a blessing to find that, in the world where the story is set, queerness is not taboo – House of Dragons isn’t a fluffy story, but it affords its queer readers a welcome into its world. It should be noted that Cluess tends to use “men and women” rather than “people”, and there are no characters who are canonically written outside the gender binary, so gender diversity isn’t well-represented here.
The world-building in the story is fantastic, with some lush descriptions of scenery that give each city and battle its own flavor. With such a crystal-clear backdrop, every character’s choices and dilemmas are grounded and meaningful.
While it feels as though the plot never lets up the pace, I look back on House of Dragons and realize that between the breathless action scenes it makes room for a lot of character study and growth. Some of the moments between the main characters and their dragons had me welling up, and all of the protagonists are forced to confront themselves and their pasts. They’re full of flaws and I understand why every flaw is there; I felt for them and hated them and loved them and forgave them by turns as the book went on.
Morality is at the core of House of Dragons, and it offers no easy answers. Emilia, Lucian, Vespir, Ajax, and Hyperia each do battle with their own codes and principles in their own way; each of them contends with how to balance being good with being successful, in a world where failure means death. It’s gripping, it’s sad, it’s twisted, it’s so much fun – it’s a fulfilling and incredibly exciting read.
And there are dragons.
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Author: Em Rowntree
I’m a non-binary writer, teacher, and cat-lover from the UK.
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