I can’t tell if this is a compliment or criticism, so I’ll just put it out here and let you decide: I spent most of this book trying to cast different actors from Game of Thrones to play the characters in this book. The similarities are just so glaring—not that I’m saying The Adamantine Palace is in any way derivative of A Song of Ice and Fire. Its world and plot and characters are entirely its own, and Stephen Deas definitely has some interesting ideas cooking here. But the overall tenor of the work, from the multiple kings and queens, the dragons, the scheming maester-like alchemists, and the use of multiple POVs and tendency for characters to keep killing each other off … all of that makes this feel along the same lines of Game of Thrones. I feel like this is exactly the kind of book series an opportunistic network that wanted to jump on the Game of Thrones trend might option and then do a terrible job adapting.
If you like more “traditional” high fantasy, this book will appeal. As previously mentioned, the book follows nobility in the throes of unceasing intrigue. The nobility and their knights ride dragons, kept tame by the potions of the alchemists. During The Adamantine Palace, certain nobles conspire with and against each other (allegiances shift really fast) in the weeks leading up to the election of a new Speaker, who is kind of like the Secretary of the UN, if the Secretary of the UN had a small military force and a massive palace and tortured people. So, you know, exactly like the Secretary.
I feel like a really awful person. I keep saying I want to read more traditional high fantasy, and then I rip into the books for being too traditional and not doing enough to circumvent, subvert, or otherwise play with the tropes of high fantasy. Why do I do this to myself? Shadow Prowler is another recent example, and although I think I liked The Adamantine Palace better on the whole, I have similar complaints. By and large, Deas reaches in the Fantasy Tropes Grab Bag, pulls up a handful of good ones, and puts them to work. But one reason I’m not a huge fan of uninnovative traditional fantasy is simply because it’s lazy. With a generation or two of readers raised in this tradition, authors don’t have to spell things out. They just say, “dragon” or “knight” or “castle” and let us do the rest. I get the sense there is a rich and interesting society in this world, but Deas spends very little time explaining it. We get vague allusions to wars of succession, etc., but no fulfilling background.
Yet it’s not as if this book is devoid of exposition. There is plenty of it, spread across far too many POVs. Indeed, The Adamantine Palace jumps from character to character even more than Game of Thrones does! With each new chapter, I kept thinking, “Ugh, not another perspective!” Don’t get me wrong: I love, love, love books that show me characters on either side, protagonists and antagonists, perpetrators and victims of schemes, etc. That’s all well and good. But there is a limit, and Deas exceeds it.
Worse still, some of the POVs seem utterly unnecessary. He introduces a few characters only to unceremoniously kill them off (or they disappear, presumably killed) after one or two chapters. What, exactly, was their point? I don’t object to the killing of main characters, but the issue here is that they didn’t have time to become established as main characters. Meanwhile, characters who were previously side characters suddenly get promoted to main characters, and—look, do you know how hard it is for me to redraw my Fantasy Character Org Chart for a book every time someone dies? I need to stop working in permanent marker….
Once the ink is dry, though, and we have a fairly stable cast, what then of the story, the plot, all those intrigues? Well, I do love the dragons. My only complaint is that Deas drops his bombshell a little too far into the novel—I kept reading, because I could see hints along the lines of what he eventually reveals, but he plays it almost a little too coy. Still, once we learn the Truth About Dragons and get more scenes with the vengeful Snow, the book picks up pace. I also love how very few people actually understand the scope of this problem; most of the nobility who are even aware of the issue think it’s simply a case of a missing or kidnapped dragon. This feels very realistic to me (insofar as a fantasy book can be realistic), and it’s also something that can be difficult for an author to achieve. Balancing the need for characters to have imperfect information while also letting the audience in on the joke can be a delicate act, but Deas does it well.
Unfortunately, the dragon plot gets sidelined by political machinations that are not as exciting or well-thought-out as their author might think they are. For one, Prince Jehal switches sides more the narrator of Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold”, to the point where I don’t think even he knows whose side he’s on. I think he’s just an overconfident, scheming psychopath amidst a bunch of overconfident, scheming sociopaths. This could have made for a good character study, except that we get treated to one too many chapters in which Jehal cackles over this or that scheme while the narrator explains to us precisely what’s going to happen next. The same goes for many of the other POV characters wrapped up in this plot. I just want to get back to the dragons.
Because, at the end of the day, I care about the dragons more than I do about these people. The dragons have my sympathy. These kings and queens? Not so much. Deas gives me little reason to cheer for any of these human characters; they’re all pretty despicable, and none of them sound like they’re going to do a better job running this land than any others. (It’s important to note that we get precious little face time with anyone who isn’t nobility, and the one sell-sword POV character is on Team Dragons. So that tells you a lot about the moral fibre of these rulers right there.)
Machinations in medieval-inspired fantasies should be like the medieval machinations that inspired them. There’s a reason why A Song of Ice and Fire steals so much from the Wars of the Roses. While it’s true that people changed sides during such conflicts, there was much more going on. I find such epic conflicts interesting because, when you read about them, you learn about what’s at stake, as well as the family politics behind the story. That isn’t present here. There are vague references to a war or two, as I mentioned above, and some allusions to pacts made long ago—and that’s about it. The Adamantine Palace is adrift in its timeline, providing little in the way or weight of history to anchor it.
I would really like to recommend this, if only because Deas does some interesting things with dragons. But it overreaches, overpromises, and does not end up delivering the depth of politics, characterization, or worldbuilding I’m looking for in my high fantasy. Am I overly critical and picky? Probably. But that doesn’t make me wrong!