The Dinosaur Lords
by Victor Milán
Tor Fantasy, New York, 2016
I bought this book for my cousin, thinking it was grimdark fantasy by the cover, perhaps set in some He-man barbarian milieu like Robert Adams’s Horseclans novels, but with dinos as the mounts. Before I sent to her, I thought I’d read it first. I wound up being pleasantly surprised.
The book is a sort of alternate world skewed sideways fantasy: a world where dinosaurs have not gone extinct, human culture is based on 14th century Spain, and the world is lush, tropical and fruitful. Disease is rare. Humans, however they came to this world (and it’s implied that they did) brought with them dogs, cats, ferrets, horses and goats — the “Five Friends” — and depend on dinosaurs for the rest of their needs. Small ceratopsians serve as cattle, hadrosaurs and some carnosaurs as beasts of war, struthiomimids as courier steeds, and small theropods as poultry. These brightly colored feathered beasts also give humans reptile leather and feathers for decoration. It’s a hot, humid world, so humans wear little else, and the religion they follow is Catholicism turned inside out — pleasure is celebrated, not forbidden. It’s all quite exotic. In some ways I was reminded of an Aztec empire that absorbed the conquistadors and made them over, rather than being conquered by them. The world building is dense and chewy, and that’s not including all the descriptions of armor and battle tactics.
There was so much to chew on, in fact, the story took a distant second place. This was fine by me, as I am a dinosaur scholar myself, and in that the story didn’t disappoint. The creatures were always there, reminding us that this is a different world with different rules of battle. More dangerous rules, in that mounted dinosaur knights have a very real chance of being squished by their own mounts.
The fun of the story comes from reading about these battles and the men who wage them. There’s a narrative stringing them along — angels, not beaming, scantily robed messengers of god, but immoral murdering avengers, are returning to the world for reasons unknown, and at the same time the Emperor has his hands full with a rebellious lord and so sends out his finest warrior, Count Jaume Llobregat, to make battle with the opposition’s finest, the mercenary gerneral Voyvod Karyl Bogomirskiy, who was robbed of his hereditary kingdom of Slavia. This battle starts the book and sets the events in motion. The Emperor wins this battle, but a second plot soon hatches in another part of the empire, and the armies must clash again.
The two generals are the heart of the book, the contrast of Karyl, who has a practical, at times unhonorable, way of commanding, self-centered as befits his position as a mercenary, yet also aiming for the highest and best results, with the more high-minded style of Jaume, who beauty and love and the glamor of battle, yet also acknowledges its ugliness and hypocrisy. Two very different commanders, both sympathetic and brilliant in different ways. Their continuing clash is what made the book interesting, though they were only instruments of the plot and did not drive it.
Other plotlines weave in and out. There’s intrigue in the capitol with the Emperor’s daughters Montserrat and Melodia, who is good as betrothed to Jaume, and the infiltration of the court by Count Falk von Hornburg, up to no good under orders from his ambitious mother; there’s also a sect of pacifists who hire Karyl and Rob Kerrigan, Karyl’s dinosaur keeper, to protect themselves from raiding neighbors. There’s heartbreak in the battles and much gruesomeness, but I can’t call it grimdark because there’s too much hope, color, and sheer exuberance, which caught me up and carried me along with it, even though I have zero knowledge of battle strategies medieval or otherwise. And although the myriad descriptions of armor might have bored me, I found them fascinating it added to the total picture of war.
The parts of the plot aside from the battles were not as strong or compelling, including two of the POV characters. Rob Kerrigan, who narrates Karyl’s story through his own eyes as his second in command, got to be one-note after a while (he likes booze and broads, got it) and though he served the plot as an everyman character, I wish he had more dimension. Princess Melodia had little to do either, serving as a voice of dissent for Jaume’s loyalty, and then getting caught in the gears of Falk’s treachery; she suffers an awful rape for no real reason (and an embarrassing sex scene as well, a little earlier.) Later in the story she shows signs of strength and maturation, and I’m guessing she will become a stronger character in the future. She has the female-written-by-a-male syndrome of admiring her boobies and other ladies-in-waiting’s boobies, which was annoying, but in the greater scheme of the story, I could overlook it because the battle depictions were just that good.
There were little snippets before each chapter about the different kinds of dinosaurs, native gods and goddesses, and so on, and I liked those too, even if they didn’t always relate to the chapter they headed.
Now let’s get to the good stuff. As a writer myself, I suppose I could find deep fault with the idea that 14th century Spaniards somehow made their way to a different planet where real-world dinosaurs never went extinct, and refer to those dinosaurs by the names 20th century people gave them, which had been recorded in their Bible of sorts. Even though this is a fantasy, and the author’s disclaimer at the book’s beginning lets us know what not to expect (“This world—Paradise—isn’t Earth. It wasn’t Earth. It won’t ever be Earth. It is no alternate Earth. All else is possible…”) I found myself wondering just what in the hell was going on with this world’s history. Which could be a plot point for the reader to gradually discover, if not for the characters who already live there. Then again, the author doesn’t necessarily owe it to us. But the world is such a nifty one — pseudo post-Columbian Spanish Aztec Empire with dinosaurs! — that I honestly feel it deserves it.
Another minor issue I had is with the names of the dinosaurs. They do have nicknames like vexers, runners and scratchers but their scientific names are used as well, with their measurements, in meters. I can guess that not referencing them by species would make it extremely confusing for the reader, but then again, where does 20th century paleontology figure into this world? I can see why the author did it, but it’s still a plot hole at the end of the first book. I wonder if he should have been more insouciant about his setting. I am reading The Worm Ouroboros now, and E.R. Eddison certainly made no explanations for setting a story on Mercury in the countries of Demonland, Witchland, and Pixyland, with some warriors having Latinate names and others bizarre monikers like Fax Fay Faz. The work stands on its own merit. Eddison didn’t have to explain.
Lastly, as a dinosaur fan myself I have to say the author really did his work in researching how these creatures might have acted under domestication and battle training. Some details are fanciful yet not scientifically unsound, such as the outrageous colors and the terremoto attack of the hadrosaurs, an infrasonic roar aimed to discombobulate and confuse enemy troops. Everything did seem well researched using the latest information available at the time the books were written (keep in mind new discoveries are made all the time.) An enjoyable read, and I’ll do the sequels as well.