In a genre where it’s typical for hapless adolescents to stumble, dazzled and awkward, into great power and great responsibility, it’s refreshing to read a fantasy novel where the leads are a pair of mature, competent adults.
With her protagonists, Tam and Corin, who fall in love amid impending war and resurgent magic, author Anne Leonard brings a sense of literary sophistication to her debut novel, “Moth and Spark.”
Part pseudo-historical romance, part dragon-riding adventure, “Moth and Spark” is best described as low fantasy, a style that favors interpersonal conflict and political intrigue over the supernatural (“Game of Thrones” is a famous example).
Leonard’s book shines best when dealing with the art of courtly manners and interclass courtship but is less successful in the second half, when visions and dragon-granted powers drive the story more.
We’re introduced to Corin, the crown prince, as a seasoned soldier, loyal to his father the king and resistant to his mother’s attempts to marry him off. Tam, an educated, middle-class girl, is spending her first season at court, where she has to listen to endless gossip from the other unmarried girls about the titled lords they hope to snag. The couple meet in the palace library, and their paths become increasingly entwined by both love and magic.
The kingdom faces the threat of imminent invasion by eastern barbarians and finds itself suddenly unable to rely on its imperial ally, which employs enslaved dragons as a kind of light air force.
Somehow, Corin has been selected by the dragons as their liberator and imbued with some of their gifts, such as telepathic communication with the dragons and their riders and the ability to move through time more quickly than most humans can.
Tam starts having visions of ice canyons and an ancient darkness dwelling deep within the mountains. The intel she provides will prove vital to Corin’s task.
When the invaders reach the capital, Corin and Tam must flee in service of their quest. They head to a hidden village to prepare for a confrontation with the dragons and the emperor-master, but much of the war is kept offstage. This is unfortunate, because away from the bustling capital city and its large cast of characters, the book falls a little flat. The success of Corin’s mission never really seems in doubt, which saps the plot of some of its energy.
Leonard is a strong, descriptive writer. A dragon’s scale is “as smooth as glass, with edges like a freshly sharpened sword, and warm to the touch.” The atmosphere at a fair swirls with smells: “food and fire and sweaty people, cinnamon and musky perfumes, damp mud, the sweetness of flower garlands and the yeasty scent of beer.” But her literary instincts can cause the writing to be too subtle at times.
Tam’s visions are bewilderingly unclear, and too often characters have to explain their conclusions to each other rather than allowing the reader to be privy to their thoughts.
The merging of the so-called “literary” and “genre” categories of novels has proven to be fertile ground lately. It’s nice to see a standalone book that takes itself seriously but goes full-bore when it comes to invented worlds and mythical creatures. And though she may not have completely pulled it off, Leonard proves she has plenty of potential for more.
Moth and Spark, by Anne Leonard (368 pages, Penguin; $16)