Book One of The Dragoon Saga
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Blurb from Goodreads
From fantasy author Josh VanBrakle comes the first volume in an epic new trilogy of friendship, betrayal, and explosive magic. Lefthanded teenager Iren Saitosan must uncover a forgotten history, confront monsters inspired by Japanese mythology, and master a serpentine dragon imprisoned inside a katana to stop a revenge one thousand years in the making.
Lodian history declares lefthanded people chaotic, dangerous, and devil-spawned, but Iren, the kingdom’s only known Left, thinks that’s an exaggeration. Sure, he loves pranking the residents of Haldessa Castle, but that’s harmless fun to get a little attention.
When one of his stunts nearly kills Lodia’s charismatic heir to the throne, Amroth Angustion, however, Iren confronts a no-win choice. To avoid execution, he must join a covert team and assassinate a bandit lord. The mission is suicidal, and Iren’s chances aren’t helped when he learns that his new katana imprisons a dragon’s spirit, one with a magic so powerful it can sink continents and transform Iren into a raging beast.
Adding to Iren’s problems, someone on the assassination team is plotting treason. When a former ally launches a deadly plan to avenge the Lefts, Iren finds himself trapped between competing loyalties, and the fates of two nations will depend on his choice.
Interview with Author Josh VanBrakle
What inspired you to write The Wings of Dragons?
I started forming the ideas for The Wings of Dragons over a decade ago in high school. After I graduated, though, I set it down in favor of college, career, and life in general. I came back to it in 2011 thanks to a pair of coincidences. The first is that my wife got a job working evenings, so I was suddenly on my own after work. The second was seeing an article in a local paper for a writing workshop series hosted by Shannon Delany, author of the 13 to Life series and the Weather Witch series. I was looking for something to fill my evenings alone, and after attending Shannon’s workshops, I was inspired. I dug up those old notes, brought in my life experiences with forestry to improve my settings, and used Shannon’s advice to hammer it all into a book. It was a wild two-year journey, but I’m glad I went for it.
Tell us about the main character in the story. Who is Iren Saitosan?
Iren Saitosan is 18 years old, and he’s the only lefthanded person in his country. Lore where he lives says that lefthanded people are demon-spawned, and as a result, Iren has lived an isolated life. Hated and feared by everyone in Haldessa Castle, Iren starts off more immature than his age suggests, and he commonly gets in trouble for pulling pranks on the castle’s residents. At the same time, because of his suffering, there’s part of him that yearns for companionship. He wants to trust others and help people, but even he doesn’t realize it at first. When his reputation as a Left gets him drafted into a dangerous mission, though, Iren finally becomes part of a team. It’s a chance to form friendships, but it could also kill him. No one on the team is who they appear to be, and to survive, Iren has to figure out who – and how – to trust.
Fantasy loves trilogies, so that’s what I’m shooting for with the Dragoon Saga. That said, I have some thoughts on other books that could connect to the main three if the series takes off. At the least I’d like to do an origin story for one of my female leads, Rondel Thara. She’s a deep, complicated character, and she wears so many masks sometimes even I don’t know who she really is. I’d love to delve more into her long and sometimes ugly past.
Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what type of music provided inspiration for The Wings of Dragons?
I’ve tried to listen to music when I write, but I have this bad habit of getting distracted and singing along (badly). So I stopped doing that. When I do listen to music, I’m open to a lot of styles, but I especially enjoy classic rock.
Who are some of your favorite authors/influences?
I guess I wouldn’t be a fantasy author if I didn’t list Tolkien here. Like most who get into fantasy, The Hobbit was my introduction to it. I enjoy injecting suspense and mystery into my novels to keep the reader guessing, so I’m also inspired by works in those genres. A few of my favorites are Michael Crichton, Ian Fleming, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Finally, this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Shannon Delany. Shannon mostly writes YA paranormal romance, which is not usually my genre. But Shannon hosted the 2011 writing workshop series that inspired me to finish The Wings of Dragons and get it published. She’s a skilled writer, a giving person, and without her, you wouldn’t be reading these words right now. If you haven’t picked up her latest novel Weather Witch, I recommend it.
What do you do when not writing?
At this point I still work a day job at a nonprofit promoting farm and forest conservation, so that and writing take up most of my time. When I can get a few minutes, though, I enjoy reading, hiking, kayaking, nature photography, and doing just about anything outdoors.
What’s next for you as a writer?
I have a couple projects going right now. The first is the sequel to The Wings of Dragons, which is now in revisions. I hope to see that released in 2015. I’ve also started a non-fiction book based on my first career (forestry). That project is still in drafting stage, but I’m very excited about it. There are a lot of big changes happening in our forests, and the story isn’t being told. I feel like forests are waiting for their Rachel Carson, someone who can tell the complexities of what’s happening in the environment in a way that the public can understand and that inspires them to act. I don’t know if I’m that person, but I want to give it my best shot.
Do you have any advice for new writers just entering the shark infested waters?
I could put far more here than would ever fit into an interview, most of it from the long list of mistakes I’ve made along the way. In the interest of brevity, perhaps the best advice I could give is “Let yourself fail.” You will write a lot of junk before you write something decent. Don’t sweat it. I’ve learned far more from my failures than I have from my successes.
A book that inspired me while I was on my journey with The Wings of Dragons was Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. I recommend this book to writers and to anyone who wants to excel in their field. One story from it in particular always stands out to me. Toward the end, Colvin talks about female Olympic ice skaters. Think about these poor women for a minute. They go out there on the hard ice every day in a skimpy outfit with no padding whatsoever, and then they try to do jumps and spins and other moves that would put me on my butt. And you know what happens? They fall on their butts too. They fall on their butts over and over and over again. It’s only because they keep falling that when they finally get to a competition, they don’t fall and in fact make every move look effortless.
Do you want to succeed as a writer? It’s easy. Just fall on your butt ten thousand times.
This or That
Paper or ebook?
I read both, but I prefer paper. I’m just old fashioned that way. It’s one of my dreams to have a library in my home with the walls lined with shelves full of books.
Mac or PC?
I use a PC, much to the dismay of both my wife and cover designer. I have no problem with Macs, but I’ve grown up with PCs and am much more familiar with the nuances of Windows.
Forests or Mountains?
Yes! I love nature in all its forms. Even though I wound up writing fantasy, my first career was in forestry, and that’s also what I went to college for. I still work at an environmental non-profit, and most of my hobbies involve the outdoors. I also live in the Catskill Mountains, which are heavily forested, so it’s like getting the best of both.
Sunrise or Sunset?
I’m a late riser, so I’m going to say sunset. I’d love mornings, if only they didn’t come so early in the day!
Coffee or Tea?
Neither. As my wife will tell you, I’m a hot cocoa kind of guy, especially around the holidays. I think it comes from growing up in Hershey, Pennsylvania. I’m pretty sure there’s chocolate in my veins from all the years I spent there.
City or Country?
I love living in the country. Life moves at a little slower pace here, and I find it more relaxing, which helps me write. Plus, since I love the outdoors, living in a rural area puts nature a lot closer.
Chocolate or Vanilla?
Which one do you have more of?
Movies or TV?
I don’t watch a lot of either to be honest. I just don’t have time. We’re still one of those families that only gets channels 2-12 (seriously). That said, there are a few TV shows I enjoy. I prefer shows that are serial in nature so that I get a chance to grow along with the characters, much like in a book. But I also enjoy movies because they give you a chance in just a couple hours to see the full arc of a story. I actually learned how to pace my novels from watching great movies like Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon. I studied at what times in these movies different parts of the plot, like twists or turning points, happened. It’s paid off too. One of the most common compliments I get regarding my work is that its fast pace keeps readers guessing and engaged.
Dragons or Griffins?
I’m pretty sure the answer on this is obvious. I’ve always had a thing for dragons. I think it comes from my childhood obsession with dinosaurs. As a kid, I wanted to dig up dinosaur bones, and I even learned to read using dinosaur books (they always put the phonetic spellings after those crazy names!). Dinosaurs still fascinate me, and a flying, fire-breathing dinosaur? That’s just straight up awesome.
About the Author
Josh VanBrakle is an unrepentant lefty who is overjoyed to live in an age when authors can type their stories instead of handwriting them. His love of fantasy and science fiction, kindled by The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, led to a dream of publishing a novel that refused to let itself get pushed aside. A late-bloomer to writing professionally, Josh first trained in forestry and economics. In his day job, Josh works for an environmental non-profit promoting farmland and forest conservation. When he’s not working or writing, Josh enjoys reading, hiking, kayaking, and nature photography. Originally from Hershey, Chocolatetown USA, Josh now lives in the Catskills region of upstate New York with his wife Christine and their two ill-behaved cats.Website
Goodreads Author Page
Descent into Darkness
After a hasty breakfast at dawn, Balear and the others headed to the entrance to Veliaf’s mine. Hardly an elegant structure, the mine’s opening was nothing more than a large hole in the ground covered with a pair of hinged wooden doors that swung to either side. Next to the doors sat a gargantuan chunk of blue stone with heavy ropes and pulleys wrapped around it. Dirio explained that it had come from a slag pile near the mine’s entrance. Balear wondered how many villagers it had taken to haul the boulder over the entrance.
Captain Angustion motioned for Dirio to take the lead alongside him. Rondel came next, still grinning in that way that made Balear want to punch her in the face. The Castle Guard’s code forbade him to strike a woman, in particular an old woman, but Rondel really, really pushed him. After her display yesterday, though, Balear was in no mood to challenge her.
The captain had ordered Balear and Iren to serve as rear guard. They hadn’t seen any more Quodivar in the village, but that didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t there. Moreover, even if the bandits Rondel had killed yesterday were the only Quodivar left in Veliaf, the spiderweb of mine passages could hide any number of them.
Balear cast a surreptitious glance at Iren. Admittedly, his opinion of the Left had changed a little in the past twenty-four hours. Healing Dirio, even though Balear didn’t understand how on Raa that could happen, had at least proved Iren capable of good deeds. For this particular assignment, however, Iren still made him deeply uncomfortable. The Left had barely survived his first skirmish. The heart of the Quodivar and Yokai’s territory wasn’t the place for basic training, whatever devil magic Iren might have. Making matters worse, Captain Angustion kept heaping praise on the boy. He never made such glowing remarks to other soldiers.
All the same, Balear knew his superior must have his reasons. If Captain Angustion considered Iren’s talents acceptable, Balear would just have to keep his own feelings in check and obey.
The group slipped into the dank mine, shadows enveloping them the moment they crossed the threshold. Leaning down, Dirio located a large box just inside the mine entrance. A shower of sparks erupted, and a torch flared to life in Dirio’s hand.
Putting away his striker, Dirio retrieved enough torches from the box and gave one to each of them. The light did little more than cast a pale glow on their path, but even so, Balear took in the mine with awe. The tunnels had square cross sections large enough to allow even the tallest workers to walk around comfortably. Sturdy wooden cants, some so thick Balear doubted he could have wrapped his arms around them, supported the ceiling. Dirio tapped one and turned to the group. “Spruce timbers from Akaku,” he whispered. “Nowhere else around grows them this big.”
Balear marveled not only at the mine itself, but also at the incredible work that had gone into making it. Aside from the constant threat of death by cave-in, he knew the workers had risked their lives by entering Akaku to cut trees. The flat walls bore the occasional divot signifying where crews had carved their way through the solid earth, deeper and deeper until finally reaching the stone they wanted.
With each step, Balear’s muscles tightened. Thus far, no one had approached them, whether from the front or from behind, but the mine’s emptiness only set him more on edge. It was full of blind corners, and every turn could reveal an enemy. Worse, while their torches helped light their path, they also gave away their approach to anyone lurking around a bend.
Eventually, Dirio called them to a halt with a silent wave. Balear looked ahead and beheld the breach in the mine that led into the cavern beyond. Peering into the opening, he saw that the cave’s walls curved up and away from him, far higher than the mine’s ceiling.
Captain Angustion doused his torch, and the others quickly did the same. They’d needed the torches so Dirio could navigate them to the cavern, but they couldn’t risk using them any longer. Now they had truly entered Quodivar territory, and stealth could make the difference between victory and death.
For a moment Balear fumbled in the total darkness, unable to see even an inch in front of his face. Cold mist from the cavern swirled around him, dampening his clothes as well as his spirits. Gulping, he stretched out a hand and grasped the shoulder of the person in front of him. The height told him it belonged to Iren. He instinctively recoiled, but focusing on the mission, he reluctantly took hold and let the freak guide him.
They walked in a line, each person with a hand on the one in front of them. Rondel led the way. Balear could barely perceive the faintest glow coming from around her head. She must be doing that crazy thing with her eyes again. More devil magic, he knew. Still, she managed to weave her way through the black tunnel without difficulty, and Balear doubted an approaching Quodivar would consider the tiny light her eyes created anything out of the ordinary.
More likely, they would notice the noise the group made. Deprived of his sight, every sound felt magnified a dozen times over. Every crunch of his boots on the gravel floor, every drop of water from the ceiling, every hissed breath became more deafening than Haldessa’s great hall during an evening meal.
Rondel led them on for an indeterminate amount of time, the floor gradually sloping downward as they hiked. The only problem with the Left leading the way was her height. She seemed to forget, or maybe she just didn’t care, that the men following her all measured at least a head taller than her. While she could easily avoid low ceilings, more than once Balear collided into one that jutted out of nowhere. In the total darkness, he never received the slightest warning. He quickly lost track of how many bruises had already started forming on his head.
Suddenly, there was a loud crash right in front of him. Iren’s shoulder disappeared from his grip, and Balear was left alone in the dark. He reached for his sword, terrified that the enemy had ambushed them and begun slaughtering them one by one. Before he could draw his weapon, however, he pitched forward, tripping over a mound that came almost to his waist. The pile was fortunately soft, and the moment he hit it, the series of muffled “Oofs!” and a high-pitched cry of “My back!” told him what had happened.
Rondel had stopped for some reason, but in the blackness no one could tell. Balear disentangled himself from the inglorious heap, and the others did the same. Next to him, Balear heard a series of popping noises, and then Rondel said, “Well, I guess it’s fine after all.”
Although he couldn’t see her, Balear knew the old Left was smiling.
“Why did you stop?” Iren whispered, but he needn’t have asked. Just ahead, around a bend in the passageway, a dull light shone. Captain Angustion poked his head around the corner and gestured that it was safe to proceed.
With the captain leading the way, they slowly advanced. The tunnel narrowed until Balear felt rock scraping against both of his arms. It made him fear for Captain Angustion. In the cramped space, his superior would have no support. Balear couldn’t fire his bow here, and he doubted the captain could even draw his long hand-and-a-half sword.
To Balear’s great relief, the tunnel ultimately opened into a much larger room, though just how big he couldn’t tell. Dozens of torches lined the chamber walls, but their light faded before reaching the ceiling. Balear judged the distance to the torches on the far wall at well over a hundred feet. In the middle of the room, the Quodivar had mounted a series of pedestals bearing even more torches.
What those torches revealed made Balear’s breath catch in his throat. Gold and silver coins, fine textiles, exquisite jewelry, and masterful paintings covered most of the room’s floor.
The Quodivar’s plunder, however, had not made Balear react. No, his concern stemmed from the wooden table in the room’s center. Six crude chairs fashioned from logs surrounded it, and upon each sat a man. They appeared distracted with a dice game, but each of them had a dagger at his belt and a sword just behind him within easy reach. Balear pursed his lips. He and his companions were in shadow here, just beyond the edge of the room, but as soon as they entered, the men would notice them.
Amroth apparently made the same calculation, because he looked back, gave the faintest of nods, and then charged into the room at full speed, sword drawn. At first, Balear didn’t understand the gesture, but when Iren nearly bowled him over to join the fray, at last the young soldier understood. Since they couldn’t sneak up on the enemy, they might as well just get noticed and take them out as quickly as possible.
By the time Balear drew his bow, the battle had nearly ended. Iren and Captain Angustion had each slain two men already, and as Balear nocked his first arrow, Rondel stabbed another from behind. The sixth fighter, however, the one farthest from where they had entered the room, had fled the moment the attack started. The captain raced after him, disappearing into a passageway that led further down.
For a moment the others stared in shock at the empty canyon entrance. Rondel recovered first. “Let’s go,” she said. “The fool’s going to get himself killed.”
They dashed for the far passage, Balear taking the lead. He had to reach his captain. He had to protect him. Captain Angustion couldn’t die! Balear crossed the threshold into the canyon, and then the explosion knocked him flat.
The bone-crushing shower of stone missed him by inches. Coughing amid the dust, Balear regained his feet. A wall of debris blocked the passageway. He cursed and smashed his fist against it.
“A trap,” Dirio suggested, “meant to crush anyone who crosses into the canyon.”
Rondel looked doubtful. “Then why didn’t Amroth trigger it? Or that Quodivar?”
“Who cares?” Balear shouted. He wrapped both arms around one of the larger stones, trying and failing to heave it aside. “We’ve got to reach Captain Angustion!”
They all rushed to help, but with each rock Balear removed, his thoughts drifted, unbidden, to Rondel. He highly doubted that the collapse had occurred naturally, but surely no manmade effort could have caused it. The explosion that preceded the cave-in and the horrible timing of it stunk of devil magic.
After entirely too long, they cleared enough of the rock fall for Balear to squeeze through. Once past the debris, he bounded down the tunnel at a full sprint. He knew he was opening himself up to an ambush, but he didn’t care. He would run until he found his captain, dead or alive.
As he charged through the gloom, he was dimly aware that this latest passage looked nothing at all like the previous ones. Those had rough, jagged walls that stuck out at odd angles and changed direction at random. This tunnel, by contrast, was wide, round, smooth, and perfectly straight. Just like the cave-in, he had the odd feeling that nature hadn’t created it, yet neither did it resemble a human effort like Veliaf’s mine. The walls looked poured, not excavated, and everything had an eerie sheen that made it look like glass, except black.
The bizarre tube finally ended, and Balear ran into another open room, this one looking natural. Though barely fifteen feet at its widest, its ceiling, like the previous room, rose so high he couldn’t begin to discern it. Reaching the room’s center, Balear tensed. Something about this place made him uneasy.
A hand grasped Balear’s shoulder, and he jumped in panic even as Rondel whispered, “Stop.” Balear turned and saw Rondel’s stressed, even worried face. Considering her impressive display yesterday, that look unsettled him more than anything he’d seen in years.
The old Left methodically surveyed the room, those crazy sparks in her eyes again. At first Balear thought Rondel had satisfied herself, because she took a few steps toward the room’s far end. The young sergeant stared at her back, wondering what passed through her head.
Without warning Rondel spun around and drew her dagger. “Get ready,” she spat, her terse voice low and acidic. “There are ten of them.”
Iren and Dirio finally came into the room, the foreman huffing and puffing after all the effort. “Ten of what?” he breathed, his hands on his knees.
Rondel didn’t get a chance to answer. As soon as Dirio spoke, a hideous cackling filled the room, and a mass of grotesque shapes cascaded from the ceiling. The dim cavern torches cast odd shadows off their five-foot frames, reverse jointed legs, and lanky arms that nearly reached the ground. Their angular faces sported glowing yellow eyes and a pair of three-inch horns sticking out above them. Worst of all, though, the beasts had bright red hair, which reflected the torches perfectly and made their ghastly heads appear aflame. Each monster carried a pair of two-foot long swords, one in each hand, the blades adorned with barbs and a tip that curved backward. Balear trembled. Those swords weren’t designed to slice cleanly, but rather to torture and inflict maximum pain on their victims as they were slowly cut to ribbons. Only one race would craft such swords and take so much delight in using them.