I’m generally not in the habit of spoiling earlier books in a series. However, Stephen Deas’s latest dragon novel is something of an exception. While it is set in the same world as his A Memory of Flames trilogy, and is thus highly influenced by the events therein, it is a stand-alone novel in most ways. If you’re thinking of jumping into Deas’s dragon stories, The Black Mausoleum makes a great starting point with all its sheer epicness and wonderfully grim moral ambiguity. But if you’re planning to read his trilogy first, you might want to stop reading this review, as it’s impossible to look at The Black Mausoleum without discussing the events that led to this story.
A devastated new beginning
In many ways, The Black Mausoleum is a turning point in Deas’s dragon series. The events in A Memory of Flames have devastated the world. Where dragons were commanded by men in The Adamantine Palace, the first book in the trilogy, they are now on the loose, out for vengeance against the very men who have controlled them for so long. This changes everything. The Black Mausoleum is no longer a story filled with political intrigue. Nations have crumbled, and who cares about politics in a world filled with bloodthirsty dragons, right? Instead, this is a story of survival. It paints a dark picture of mankind at its worst when, faced with complete annihilation, every man fights for himself. Cities we knew in A Memory of Flames are reduced to ashes, and few characters have survived.
Some things stay the same, however. Like its predecessors, The Black Mausoleum is a bloody and gritty tale that reflects on humanity with dark, sinister realism. Stephen Deas has an almost frightening talent for creating characters to both hate and identify with. When faced with terrifying dragons, his characters don’t stick together. Instead, they turn against each other. Everyone blames everyone else for the escape of the dragons, and no one is truly trying to fight the dragons.
Classical journey with a twist
Except, I suppose, Kataros, one of the main characters, who embarks upon a crazy journey to find a mythological weapon that may be capable of defeating the dragons. She is assisted by Skjorl, an Adamantine Man, trained from birth to fight dragons. Their journey forms the heart of The Black Mausoleum. Deas flirts with the Sword and Sorcery genre, but with much higher stakes; the very world is threatened. It is almost a classic epical journey, but with plenty of twists to make it interesting—after all, traveling through a world filled with deadly dragons isn’t quite that easy. The relationship between Kataros and Skjorl adds another interesting element; Kataros is actually using her blood magic to force Skjorl to help her out against his will.
Magic and world building
In that blood magic lies one of the biggest differences between The Black Mausoleum and the three novels in A Memory of Flames. One of the most prominent of my observations throughout those novels is the lack of world building. This is not a bad thing; it’s just something Deas seems to do differently from other epic authors. He doesn’t force-feed you a world in bite-size pieces. Through the eyes of his characters, you slowly learn more of the world he’s created, and there are plenty of hints at more mystery and epicness—but it’s never quite enough. Though the trilogy’s conclusion, The Order of the Scales, already had some great world building, it takes a significant step forward in The Black Mausoleum. While staying true to his own marvelous style, Deas shows the world through new eyes. Magic starts playing a much more prominent role. What was only mentioned in passing in previous novels now turns into an interestingly authentic and creative magic system. Furthermore, this slow journey—from deserted wastelands to underground waterways lit by magic, and from rivers filled with huge worms to encounters with man-eating lizards in the forest—showcases Deas’s world in astonishing detail.
There be dragons… obviously
While listing these differences, I should also mention the biggest constant in Deas’s dragon novels: the actual dragons. He restores dragons to their rightful positions as horribly terrifying, overwhelmingly imposing, awesome rulers of men. These dragons are awe-inspiringly intelligent monsters that regard humans as nothing but a nuisance. That is, until humans enslaved them for centuries. Now, they want revenge… and with these dragons, you’d better run away. This is how “real” dragons are supposed to be. Not those cute, childlike creatures in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Not those refined, loving dragons in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle. No—fierce, wonderful, truly frightening monsters, the way they were in mythology, and the way Tolkien wrote about them—except, you know, there are thousands of them roaming the land.
Why should you read this book?
The Black Mausoleum is a good starting point if you always wanted to check out the works of Stephen Deas. It summarizes the events in his A Memory of Flames trilogy, and sets the scene for his next trilogy that begins with Dragon Queen, which comes out in May. Deas has a knack for writing dark and morally ambiguous characters that even George R.R. Martin should envy. Most of all, though, his novels are pure, high-speed whirls of action, suspense, and drama, written with formidable, horrifyingly vivid prose. The Black Mausoleum is no exception to this and with its intriguing timeline—events are not told chronologically—and epic world building, it may even be better than most of Deas’s books. If you enjoy reading about dragons, you should definitely give it a try. My only problem is with its sudden and unsatisfying ending, and the next book may well make up for that, though. I certainly can’t wait!