Dawn of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A remarkable debut novel, Dawn of Wonder is a beautifully written tale of a boy–soon to be a young man–living and struggling to survive with his dignity and his (often-bruised) body intact while growing up in an intricately woven tapestry of a world.
Renshaw provides an astonishing level of detail regarding how this world works, from its nasty intra- and inter-regional political/cultural disputes to the multifaceted people who are so used to living life under strict societal rules that anyone who behaves with a measure of independence risks getting his head sliced off.
By far, the most enthralling section of the book (and luckily it’s the majority of this weighty tome–uh, speaking figuratively since I read it on my Kindle!) involves… well, no, let me start from the beginning, although I won’t give anything specific away.
Our young hero is Aeden, a boy fascinated by learning about the world around him, but though he spends many happy days with his closest friend (a smart, strong girl whom we don’t see enough of, understandably for plot purposes), his family life is mostly brutal due to a vicious, abusive dad.
Before too long, he loses almost everything dear to him and must flee to find some kind of safe haven with his mother. And here’s where things get awesome, because Aeden ends up at an elite military academy. This ain’t no Hogwarts, either, with its cushy surroundings and mostly loveable staff. It’s a tough-as-nails, cold-as-stone existence where boys (and yes, as we find out, girls) are taught to defend themselves, their prince, and especially their land. The rough training is almost as brutal as Aeden’s horrific father, and most of the other students are bullies and ignoramuses. Aeden does meet up with a crew of decent guys, thankfully. But he has to be on guard constantly, because it seems he makes enemies much more easily than he does friends. That’s not even counting the Bigger Enemy, which is a terrifying army from another kingdom, a land where slavery and torture is commonplace… and its military is conquering lesser lands one by one.
The academy and its grueling curriculum are the highlights of Renshaw’s elaborate, carefully crafted world. If you want to learn about fighting with arrows, stakes, clubs, swords, stones, eye-gouging, kicks to an enemy’s dangly bits… well, you’ve come to the right place. We learn everything along with Aeden, and Renshaw manages to make it fascinating. Action is hard to make clear on the page, but the author succeeds in letting us visualize everything that’s happening during both training and actual bouts.
Aeden is a three-dimensional character with flaws, fears and multiple strengths, including many he doesn’t quite understand yet. He falls short in the face of battle a few times due to inner torments, but generally he is almost always the kid with the right answer, the most ingenious plot, the correct instincts. His mentors think highly of him, even though he gets into trouble quite a lot. But even when he’s up to mischief, it’s generally for good reasons. And he is loyal, oy veh is he loyal! To a fault, really. He doesn’t seem able to give up hope on his father, despite the proof over and over that the guy’s a flat-out brute. Sadly realistic, for domestic abuse victims.
(By the way, in this first novel of the series, there’s a notable paucity of magical elements; there is some, but it’s mostly hinted at, foreshadowed, but not directly shown. Unusual beasts and visions make it clear that this is a fantasy world, and I have no doubt that later books will expand on the portents we see in this one. The book packs tons of delicious teases of future events, and its ending–no spoilers!–makes it clear that we have a new goal to look forward to.)
You may be wondering why this is a four-star review when I’m praising the book and writing to the skies. I guess it’s due to a few things, all of which are verrrrry subjective and I’m sure most people wouldn’t find them negatives.
1) The world-building is dense and richly depicted… a teensy bit too much. The novel’s as long as it is because Renshaw spends time developing so many characters and creating this world, but not all of the characters seem to deserve the amount of time and space devoted to them (unless I’m very much mistaken about where the story’s headed). If the writing weren’t so good, I would have found myself skipping many of the passages depicting humorous interchanges with a grating shrew of an old woman Aeden and his mother meet up with.
2) Aeden is so very much The Chosen One that sometimes I kinda wanted him to fail. Y’know how I described him as being the one with the right answer, the cleverest strategy, etc.? This is purely my own taste but I’m just not 100% behind that type of protagonist: the scrappy underdog who’s actually the best at almost everything he does, continually surprising his mentors and teachers, able to understand more than any of the other boys, who finds the secret doorways/passages.
It’s true that other kids are given Moments of Awesome, but they’re few and far between. Generally, when a question is posed by any of the instructors, it’s Aeden who pipes up with the correct answer, with the brilliant military strategy.
Please don’t get me wrong: Renshaw has given Aeden plenty of problems and flaws. But to be honest, they’re flaws that are entirely understandable given his upbringing, and there’s never much doubt that he’ll conquer them. He’s not a Gary Stu–far too nuanced and enjoyable for that–but let’s just say the needle does sometimes edge treacherously close over to the “Gary Stu” side of the meter.
But as I said, this is a personal preference; I’ve probably just read too many “chosen one” tales. And I know it’s a tad ridiculous for me to wish a hero didn’t have a hero’s gifts. I’m totally aware that it comes with the territory of YA fantasy (really, any fantasy… or any Hero’s Journey type tale).
The above issues by no means ruin the book. I like Aeden very much, along with three or four of the other young friends he meets, and the adult characters are diverse and (mostly) multi-dimensional. I’m captivated by the over-arching revenge plot that pushes Aeden forward, especially once he gets a specific quest close to the end of the book. And yet again, the writing… the writing is just so damn readable! The descriptions are elegant and picturesque without ever falling into the trap of being grandiose; the harsh violence and fighting scenes are visceral without being gratuitous, and the dialogue is believable and earthy without being vulgar.
Renshaw is a major talent and I hope many, many more tales continue to flow from his pen (okay, his screen). All I wanna know is: when is the next book arriving? Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys fantasy.