The Old Dragon’s Head by Justin Newland, Troubador, £9.99, website
Reviewed by Ann Mair
I found this book very difficult to review. First, I was muddled by the many names of Chinese and Mongol at the very beginning, having to restart several times. Then I discovered that the names of most individual characters were a single syllable and was able to get used to these and recognise them. Then, secondly, I became so interested in the story that my critical faculties switched off and all I wanted was to see what came next. The author is an excellent storyteller.
Several characters share the story, switching from chapter to chapter, but luckily keeping to the timeline roughly. Some of them do not have a great time of it, somewhat graphic descriptions of torture they endure pervade the book. Reminded me of Dick Francis’s poor heroes. It is beautifully written, the description of the great wall of China, and the work required to keep it in good order shone, bringing a touch of reality to this fantasy.
The acceptance of manners and how one ought to behave governs the actions of these people.
The book is not in the least like Mulan, the Disney film set in the same background of Chinese versus Mongol war. However, the heroes are the Chinese and the villains the Mongols in both. In other circumstances, one might conclude a war between two races. But in the book both have the unpleasant methods of tyranny, neither being altogether heroic in nature. The use of burying of horseshoes at the entrance way we have more commonly seen in this country as being nailed to the doorway for luck to be contained within the household. Magic near to a hero induces migraines rather like Robert Graves’ Theseus heralds earthquakes.
My emotions were enlisted by the heroes and I wanted to follow the story of each, while the chapters switched between them, often, as they reached a point where a serial film of old would switch at a cliff hanger. This kept the action at a pace suitable for the modern reader. This is, however, a full- length book, perhaps the first they have encountered. A solid read I am glad to have read and I can recommend it thoroughly to anyone other than those identifying with the Mongols, the putative evildoers. Readers may find it useful to note the names of the characters until well into the book to keep them clear in the mind.