Bunch, Chris. Storm of Wings.

London: Orbit Books, 2002.

There was a time when “fantasy” almost automatically meant wizards in white robes, slender elves, and fearsome dragons. These days, you have a choice. Young Hal Kailas and his world have much more in common with Joe Abercrombie than with Tolkien — although the dragons are still an important part of the story.

The book (the first of a trilogy) opens with thirteen-year-old Hal having to leave his parents’ inn in a small mining town in the kingdom of Deraine to keep them out of trouble after he thrashes the local baron’s son for torturing a baby dragon. Off he goes, doing casual agricultural labor and clerking and whatever else he can find — but what he really wants is to be around dragons. Then he gets work with a barnstorming aerial dragon show and begins to learn his way around the monsters (which is what even their devotees call them), but his lessons are cut short by the outbreak of war with the neighboring country of Roche (which seems a pretty Teutonic place) and he finds himself drafted. A stint in the infantry is followed by a brief career as a cavalryman, and Hal is beginning to understand what war is all about. Then he applies to the newly established Dragon School and his life will never be the same.

Hal is a natural, both as a dragon flier and as a tactician. He climbs the ranks with amazing speed (well, he is a hero . . .), comes to the notice of the king himself, and by the time he’s in his mid-20s, he’s commanding a flight of dragons. The author has a lot of fun with this, too — think Lafayette Escadrille in the Great War — but he also makes it clear that war at its root is anything but heroic. Hal isn’t really a bloody-minded sort of person but he has the killer instinct when necessary. His superiors and subordinates are also nicely developed, as is the love interest. And the technology Hal invents almost singlehandedly to make his dragons into not only reconnaissance craft but fighter “planes” and eventually even bombers are quite ingenious. But it’s going to be a long war.

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