When a child is of a certain age, usually between seven and ten, the most magical, most wonderful thing in the world is a dinosaur. Many parents are familiar with the “dinosaur obsession” that hits children at around that age or somewhat earlier, and the almost never-ending demand for toys, books, more toys, movies, and on and on and on until the child outgrows the obsession, and moves on to other things.
But for some children—myself included—that obsession never really disappears. It grows quieter, yes, and gets buried under other interests, but it never really goes away. A very small handful of us become palaeontologists, but a greater majority of us grow up into adults whose eyes sparkle when we look at fossils; who catch The Land Before Time on HBO and still get teary-eyed when Littlefoot’s mother dies; and who rewatch Jurassic Park with the same enthusiasm we had when we first saw it. Though as adults we know that dinosaurs can’t talk and that the science at the heart of Jurassic Park has been disproven, such things don’t diminish the joy and sense of wonder we feel when we see or hear that magical word “dinosaur”.
So, when Tor released the cover for Victor Milán’s The Dinosaur Lords last year, the excitement was palpable even through my computer screen—mostly because I was feeling it myself. After all, when a cover features what looks like a medieval knight in full plate armour mounted on what is clearly a carnivorous dinosaur along the lines of Tyrannosaurus rex, who wouldn’t be excited? As a lifelong fan of James Gurney’s Dinotopia books, the idea of humans living and working alongside dinosaurs has always appealed to me. However, though I love Gurney’s utopic vision, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in a world with dinosaurs that was less than utopic. The Dinosaur Lords promised to be just that: a bloody and violent world where dinosaurs are used not only for peaceful purposes like transport and construction, but also for darker, more violent things.
The Dinosaur Lords is set in a world called Paradise, but though that’s what its residents call it, it’s the farthest thing from the kind of paradise the reader might be thinking of. While the great lords of the land make war on one another with siege engine and dinosaur alike, and while they scheme amongst themselves in the great palaces of the realm, their people pay with their lives and their livelihood—both of which the lords spend without regard for those they crush under the hooves of their horses and the feet of their dinosaurs. In the meantime, beyond the sight and comprehension of humans, strange powers and entities are beginning to move for reasons that are entirely their own. One thing, however, is certain: Paradise will find itself rocked to the very core—and not everyone will survive.
When I finally got my hands on a copy of this novel, the first thing I wanted to learn about was the world itself. I wanted to know how dinosaurs would fit into the entire scheme, how humans would use (or not use) them, particularly in warfare. How would Milán configure his world so that both humans and dinosaurs would fit together in a way that makes sense? More importantly, would he be able to do so without making it read like a massive gimmick?
Unfortunately, Milán doesn’t get it quite right. The first sign was this Author’s Note, which opens the book:
One thing you should know.
This world—Paradise—isn’t Earth.
It wasn’t Earth. It won’t ever be Earth.
It is no alternate Earth.
All else is possible…
When I first read this, I was rather puzzled to see it because I was entirely aware, going into this book, that I wouldn’t be reading about Earth at all. The Dinosaur Lords had been marketed as fantasy, a perception reinforced by the blurb on the cover: a statement from George R. R. Martin, the author of A Song of Ice and Fire series, and arguably the most popular fantasy novelist currently writing. The blurb states that the novel is “like a cross between Jurassic Park and Game of Thrones”, and while the comparison to Jurassic Park was inevitable given the novel’s content, it was the comparison to Game of Thrones that thoroughly convinced me, going in, that this would be a fantasy novel.
It didn’t take long for that belief to fall apart. I was expecting this novel to be a secondary-world fantasy—meaning, a fantasy novel set in a world all its own, with little to no reference whatsoever to our world and its history, except perhaps in very broad strokes such as in certain elements of culture, or language, or even plot events. The classic example of secondary-world fantasy is The Lord of the Rings; a more contemporary example would be A Song of Ice and Fire. Both series reference the real world (Tolkien in his languages; George R. R. Martin in his plot and to some extent his world-building), but what makes them true secondary-world fantasies is that, despite those references, the worlds they are set in still feel as if they are separate from ours. The best secondary-world fantasies transport the reader from the mundane, humdrum here-and-now to someplace else. Certainly, that someplace else might be the sort of place the reader wouldn’t survive a week in (example: Westeros), but what matters is that sense of being transported away from one’s own reality, and into another.
However, there are elements in Milán’s world-building that make me question if it is, indeed, a secondary-world fantasy. For example, the part of the world where most of the action takes place is called “Nuevaropa”; certain nations are called “Alemania”, “Spaña”, and “Anglaterra” (the latter, incidentally, is an island separated from the mainland by a Channel); and many of the words that are not in English have a distinctly Spanish flavour to them: many of them are in fact out-and-out Castilian Spanish, with some other European languages thrown in for good measure. While this might not be evident in the first few chapters, it quickly becomes obvious that, despite Milán’s note, his world actually feels a lot like Earth—specifically, Earth during the late 15th to early 16th centuries.
I found all of this bothersome, to say the least. While I was willing to make allowances for references to real-world history and culture—for example, in titles, and a few elements of language—I had a hard time getting around the fact that Milán didn’t really reference real-world history so much as lift from it almost wholesale. Take, for example, the excerpt below, which introduces one of the novel’s key characters:
Naked and still damp from her afternoon bath, the Imperial Princess Melodía Estrella Delgao Llobregat sat on her stool while her maidservant brushed out her long hair, listening to the deep tones her best friend drew from the springer-gut strings of her vihuela del arco.
Save for a single element in this paragraph (the springer-gut strings), the entire thing could have been lifted right out of a novel set in Renaissance Spain. Other elements, like the names of Melodía’s ladies-in-waiting and their countries and kingdoms of origin, as well as the dueñas mentioned later on in the scene, can feel all too familiar to any reader with a fondness for history both fictional and non-fictional—something that’s repeated, over and over again, throughout the rest of the novel. This familiarity, present in this scene and in many others, interfered with my ability to simply sink myself into the world of the novel and accept it for what it was.
However, it wasn’t just the names and the cultures that interfered with my enjoyment of the novel, and convinced me that it wasn’t secondary-world fantasy. Take a look at the epigraph for Chapter 15, quoted below:
Cinco Amigos, Five Friends—We have five domestic mammals, unlike any others in the world: the horse, the goat, the dog, the cat ,and the ferret. Because all are listed in The Bestiary of Old Home, most believe that the Creators brought them to Paradise to serve us.
—A PRIMER TO PARADISE FOR THE IMPROVEMENT OF YOUNG MINDS
This, and many other examples throughout the novel, are rather puzzling. If The Dinosaur Lords is a fantasy novel, why is Milán trying to explain in a rational (i.e. scientific) manner just why humans and dinosaurs are living together in this world when such explanations are unnecessary in a fantasy novel? When one reads in the fantasy genre, one expects to take certain things at face value because they are firmly established tropes of the genre: the existence of dwarves and elves and dragons, for example, or magic. Readers of fantasy require that the dwarves and elves and maybe even the dragons be fully-realised characters, and that the magic work according to a logical system, but they don’t question the fact that they exist in the novel in the first place.
The same applies to Milán’s dinosaurs. Since this novel has been marketed as fantasy, most readers—myself included—may have accepted the dinosaurs as a given, something that requires no explanation. At most, readers may require that Milán’s dinosaurs follow the latest paleontological findings (feathered raptors, for example), but beyond that, anything goes as long as everything else fits together in a way that makes sense.
So why does Milán go through the trouble of trying to explain the dinosaurs in a scientific manner? My theory is that The Dinosaur Lords isn’t really fantasy, but actually something closer to sci-fi. I won’t discuss what my theory is lest I ruin the whole thing for other readers, but suffice to say that I think Milán (or someone else) made a mistake in advertising this book as pure fantasy, instead of as some kind of hybrid. By marketing it as belonging to a specific genre, readers were given certain expectations that were quickly destroyed by the novel itself. This can be irritating for readers, even the more patient ones, because they are constantly being yanked out of their reading flow by some element or other that resonates with them in entirely the wrong way, and deters them from fully immersing themselves in the novel.
Aside from the above issues with Milán’s world-building choices, I also have some problems with Milán’s writing. They are not immediately obvious in comparison to his world-building, but there were moments when I had to pause in utter disbelief at what I’d just read, such as when I came across the following passage:
”We’re nowhere near ready,” Karyl said, drying his hands of sweat on a twist of straw.
I had to put the book down and stifle my laughter after reading that passage, because it’s so utterly ridiculous. “Hands of sweat” indeed: was it too difficult to say “sweaty hands” instead? Truth be told, I’d be willing to chalk that one up as a minor (albeit hilarious) error that Milán’s editor accidentally missed, but it’s just the most egregious error in a whole host of other errors scattered throughout the book. Pointing them all out would be tedious, but suffice to say they are there, and readers will either find them funny (as I did) or irritating, depending on their state of mind and preferences.
At this point, it might seem that I’ve got nothing good to say about this novel, which isn’t exactly true. Despite the aforementioned flaws, Milán manages to pack interesting characters and an interesting plot into the novel. There are a handful of point-of-view characters who each take turns in telling the story, but the three primary ones—Rob Korrigan, Jaume dels Flors, and Princess Melodía—are enjoyable to read, since they have their own distinct voices and viewpoints about the world. Rob Korrigan has a particularly interesting voice; it took me a while to recognise his accent (and he does have one), but once I realised where it was coming from I was grinning quite happily because it explained so much about who he was and his general approach to the world (though given Milán’s approach to world-building, this isn’t very flattering, either). Jaume, too, is interesting: an example of the do-gooder hero who is also conflicted about doing the right thing, and doing his duty. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in the upcoming books, given what’s happened in this one.
Of the three, though, I’m pleased with Melodía in particular: she’s intelligent, but naive, and very, very stubborn. Because of those traits she makes quite a few mistakes throughout the course of the novel, but what I like the most about her is that she owns up to those mistakes and tries her best to fix them. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I don’t particularly care if the character is a good person, but I do care if they’re a good character: meaning, complex and multi-faceted. Melodía, fortunately, is one such character.
However, not all characters were created equal, and I was disappointed with one character I thought would turn out to be the most fascinating. I won’t mention which character this is to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say they read as little more than a directionless lump of a person, good only for certain things. The only purpose this character appears to serve is to be the vehicle for some kind of great destiny only they are capable of fulfilling: a trope this novel could have done without. I’m not sure if this characterisation was deliberate on Milán’s part; if it was, I hope this character gets more interesting in the upcoming books, and if not, then I can only hope they don’t get a lot of time in the spotlight.
As for the plot, Milán does a fairly good job at creating a story that engages the reader and makes them interested and invested in the characters; the problem is that his writing and world-building interfere in what would otherwise have been a compulsively readable story. It follows a pattern that’s becoming increasingly common not just in fantasy novels, but in sci-fi novels as well: the plot starts rather slow at first, but by the time the reader hits the latter third things gain enough momentum to carry them headlong into the ending—that is, if the reader hasn’t already given up due to Milán’s world-building and writing style.
I also question Milán’s decision to end the novel the way it does. While I understand that he wants to keep the identities of certain characters a secret, laying out the conversation as though it were a script for a play implies that he isn’t capable of manipulating the scene sufficiently to disguise the nature of the characters involved, which doesn’t say anything flattering about his writing skills.
Overall, The Dinosaur Lords isn’t quite what the initial hype made it out to be. Milán’s world-building can irritate some readers enough into giving up the book entirely, while others might give up because of the uneven writing style. This is unfortunate, because those two rather large problems obscure the fact that Milán has populated his world with interesting characters, and created an equally interesting plot. However, given how the writing and the world-building have the tendency to destroy the reader’s flow and prevent them from fully engaging with the world, it’s entirely understandable if the reader gives up on this entirely, and does not pick it up again. Those who choose to persevere, however, will have something to look forward to in the upcoming novels—hopefully, something that includes a much-improved writing style and a much more cohesive and sensible world.