My thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
The Dragon’s Promise is the second and final part of the Six Crimson Cranes duology by Elizabeth Lim, a fantasy–adventure which takes us to many magical kingdoms in East Asia. In the first book, a loose retelling of the Wild Swans fairy tale, but with its own spin, we meet the Shiori, the princess of the Kingdom of Kiata who has six older brothers with whom she is very close. Her mother is dead and her father, the Emperor, is married to the beautiful but cold Raikama, who has snakes for pets. Unknown to her family, Shiori has magic, something that is abhorred in the kingdom. Soon she finds herself cursed by Raikama having to wear a bowl stuck over her head and in an unknown part of the world, not allowed to speak or her brothers will die, while her brothers are turned to crimson cranes, who change to human form at dusk. The story was very well told, using the basic template of the Wild Swans story and some familiar tropes, while also giving some other tropes their own spin and weaving in folklore and legends from the East.
Keeping this spoiler free for the first book, in The Dragon’s Curse, Shiori who has managed to break her and her brothers’ curse in the first book is tasked with returning a dragon’s pearl (the ‘heart’ of a dragon) to its owner, but to do that she must first discover who he is. This entails a journey to the Dragons’ realm underwater with her friend, a dragon, Seryu, and then a further journey to find the owner of the pearl. As the bearer of the pearl and wielder of magic, Shiori must bear its weight and things are not made easier by the fact that the monsters that had been released in her last adventure, especially their menacing leader Bandur covet the pearl for themselves. And if that weren’t enough, the Kiatan people are now aware of her magic, and many in and outside court wish to see her ‘sacrificed’ to save the kingdom.
This was an enjoyable read but much less so than the first book, for unlike that this didn’t feel like one tale but the combination of a few—three to be precise with a few other threads also tied up. We have a part of the adventure in the Dragons’ realm, a beautiful and dangerous place with its own court and intrigues; the journey to restore the pearl to its rightful owner which involves Shiori turning her brothers into cranes once again; and then addressing the problem of the monsters she’d unleashed back in Kiata. While these segments are definitely connected, and we’re also following along the romance thread with Takkan (her betrothed from the previous book) and to which a triangle element is introduced, they still feel a bit disconnected from each other.
There are secrets and revelations in the book, and some of the themes taken up and lines along which the author develops the plot as to the monsters towards the end, in Raikama’s story, and then also with the humans who have taken against Shiori in Kiata are very relevant, as is the end in its own way a very pretty one, but still it didn’t feel like everything fit together. Perhaps a longer series to do justice to each segment or some editing out to restrict this to a more cohesive story would have helped. This isn’t to say that these elements or plotlines are bad in any way but just that they needn’t have been stuffed together. I did feel the author wrapped up each segment in a fairly satisfying way, and found the fairy tale element that formed the end a lovely one.
The book is well paced and easy to read with some great descriptions of the different realms through which they travel—the splendour and danger in the land of the dragons, the small village in which they find themselves and which was once Raikama’s home, or the home of the pearl’s owner with its very dark towers and well of the blood of the stars. There’s also the close bond between the siblings, and her relationship with her father, who loves and protects her despite being stern when he needs to be as well.
A satisfying read, fairly enjoyable, but one that could have done with some toning down in terms of the number of threads developed.