Review | Dragon Mage – M.L. Spencer

About the Book

Aram Raythe has the power to challenge the gods. He just doesn’t know it yet.

Aram thinks he’s nothing but a misfit from a small fishing village in a dark corner of the world. As far as Aram knows, he has nothing, with hardly a possession to his name other than a desire to make friends and be accepted by those around him, which is something he’s never known.

But Aram is more. Much, much more.

Unknown to him, Aram bears within him a gift so old and rare that many people would kill him for it, and there are others who would twist him to use for their own sinister purposes. These magics are so potent that Aram earns a place at an academy for warrior mages training to earn for themselves the greatest place of honor among the armies of men: dragon riders.

Aram will have to fight for respect by becoming not just a dragon rider, but a Champion, the caliber of mage that hasn’t existed in the world for hundreds of years. And the land needs a Champion. Because when a dark god out of ancient myth arises to threaten the world of magic, it is Aram the world will turn to in its hour of need.

986 pages 
Publishing on January 8, 2021
Buy the book 

I edited this novel.

I never really know what to do with the books I edit. On the one hand, I feel like since I edited them, I’m a bit too invested to be able to really review them. On the other hand, I feel like I want the world to know how amazing these books are, and if I can’t yell about them, then what’s the point. 

When Spencer messaged me about editing this book, I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous. She’s got a lot of books under her belt. She’s a very successful author, and while I knew her, I wouldn’t say we were terribly close. She’s always been one of those self-published authors I’ve admired a lot but been a little too intimidated by her success to get too close to. When she asked me to edit this book, I knew it would be an amazing opportunity, but I also had a whole lot of inferiority complex going on. In fact, when she sent the book to me, it took me over a week to gather up the courage to actually start on it. This isn’t her fault; it was just me getting over my fan issues. “Oh my hell, M.L. Spencer wants ME to edit one of HER books??” 

Anyway, once I decided to get over myself and sink into it, I had a really hard time not thinking about this book or wanting read it. It was, quite frankly, dear reader, one of the most immersive editing experiences I’ve ever had in my four-ish years of doing this. And the thing is, this is not a short book. That’s part of what scared me about taking this one. It’s an investment on both our parts. It’s not cheap to get a book edited, even less so if it’s a really long one. On my end, that’s a lot of time and I need to get really, really into a book to edit it. So yeah, the length made me a bit nervous. 

Now, I’m not telling you all this so you can be all, “but Sarah, sounds like you’re doing a lot of complaining right now” because I’m not. I swear, I’m really not. I’m telling you all this, so you know what my considerations were up front, and how absolutely none of them ended up weighing down this project at all. For example, yes, this book is a long one, but I never once felt like I was reading a long book. And honestly, when I finished reading the last page, I had a book hangover the likes of which I have not experienced in years, and I immediately opened the first section of the book up again and started reading it a second time because I just did not want it to end. 

“Cool, Sarah. What’s the book about?” 

Well, that’s really where the magic is, because there’s something about Dragon Mage that worked for me on literally every level. I mean, I’ve read probably around 150 books this year between ones I’ve listed on Goodreads and stuff I’ve edited that hasn’t been published yet, and this book is, hands down, my favorite one out of the lot. If I make a Best Books of 2020 list, it’s going to be real awkward to have a book winning the entire thing that isn’t dropping until 2021.

Dragon Mage tells the story of one Aram, a young boy in a small seaside town, and readers follow his progression from a bullied outcast to a man who is strong enough to save everyone and everything he loves. It is not a smooth journey. There are a lot of points in the book where he and Markus (his loyal friend) get into situations that I just couldn’t see a way out of. Spencer keeps the tension going until the moment the scene culminates, and suddenly you understand why this particular hardship was important to Aram’s personal growth and the story overall. 

The thing is, I think a lot in my life about some of the things I’ve been through that suck. Cancer, for example, sucked really, really hard. But I also know I wouldn’t be who I am today without the experience of that, and I saw a lot of that in Aram’s story. A whole lot of things happen to him, and yet none of it is wasted. Every last bit of his story goes toward making him who he ended up being, and it is rare in fantasy that I see such narratives used as deftly, as powerfully as Spencer used it in Aram’s story–all of the small events that work together to create the whole. It was so stunningly human, while being completely fantasy, and I related to it on a level that I haven’t experienced in a very long time. Reader, Aram’s story moved me profoundly.

Furthermore, I really do need to mention the fact that Aram is on the autism spectrum, and I don’t know about you, but I haven’t read a whole lot of epic fantasy stories featuring an autistic protagonist. In fact, that Aram is autistic moved me to tears not a few times in the story. Representation matters. People deserve, and need, to see themselves in the stories they read, and bravo for Spencer bringing that to life in Aram. She shows that not only do autistic people deserve to be in the stories we read, but they can save the day just like anyone else and that is POWERFUL and NECESSARY. I truly believe there are a bunch of fantasy readers out there who are eager and excited to read about Aram, and maybe see a bit of themselves in a story for once. To root for the protagonist as an act of also rooting for themselves.

This book basically follows the hero’s journey as told through the life and times of Aram, with a few chapters from some other points of view, namely Markus, though some other perspectives are sprinkled throughout the novel here and there. None of these are ever wasted. There’s a surgical precision with which Spencer utilizes her points of view, always for the maximum impact not only for the reader, but for the scene itself. 

The battles are likewise precise and perfectly executed. In fact, there’s this bit of the book where the making of a sword is detailed, and I realized after I’d read that entire section, that usually I’d skim this. Usually, I’d think, “who cares about making a sword” and move on, but I was so completely gripped by how well Spencer explained the process, and why this and that is done, and how it’s done, and why it matters that I was absolutely captivated. It might be the first time in the history of me reading books where I thought the art of making a sword was something I was actually excited to read about. 

And this goes into the battles as well. I’m not a big battle person. I don’t really get excited about formations and armor and how things happen on the field. In fact, a lot of it goes over my head. Again, Spencer shines. Instead of getting lost in the weeds of these battles, she has this ability to bring intensity and clarity to scenes that I usually would not feel invested in. Never too long, nor too short, nor too hard to understand, the battles as depicted in this book are, in my opinion, the gold standard of how battles should be portrayed in fantasy. 

More than that, though, is the fact that everything in Dragon Mage serves numerous purposes. Not only are the battles interesting and show this wider, sprawling conflict that is consuming this parallel world that Spencer has crafted, but they are also symbols of Aram himself. His personal growth. The fight against his destiny. The difficulty overcoming the echoes of his past, which are both brutal and haunting, and his eventual fate. He does not win all the time, and that’s another bonus. Aram makes some bad decisions. He struggles, he falls, and he also succeeds, but readers are taken along, every step of the way.

The world building is also something I feel I need to touch on, because I’ve never really come across anything like this before. With vivid, almost poetic prose, Spencer brings her world to vibrant life. There was a scene in specific near the start of the book, where she’s describing the moonlight on water, and I remember editing this and thinking, “I feel like I could take a picture of this right now, it’s so vivid.” And that’s not just with descriptions, but with social and political systems, societies, cultures and the like. It’s all thought out so well, and crafted with an eye for detail, I felt like it was more real than real. While it probably took her a long time to get the book to that point, on my end, as the reader and editor, Spencer made flawless worldbuilding look absolutely effortless. 

Furthermore, it’s not your regular world. There’s the World Above and the World Below, and one impacts the other. Nothing is left untouched. This is a use of portal fantasy that I’ve never encountered before, and the depth of it, the scope, the brevity seriously deserves a standing ovation. I’ve never seen the like, and like I’ve said earlier in this review, I feel like I have to re-read the book to fully appreciate the scope of it, and it’s superb execution. 

Dragon Mage is a lot of things, but ultimately it left me feeling like, after nearly ten years in the genre world, and four years full-time editing, I’ve finally come across a book that I’ve never, ever read before. Yes, there are some familiar storylines there. The hero’s journey is not new, but the way Spencer twists it absolutely is. I’ve never encountered world building like this before, nor perspective and voice so cunningly. I’ve never cared about how a sword was made, nor felt invested in pitched battles before. I’ve never read a book featuring an autistic protagonist. And to highlight why that specific point touches me so profoundly (reader, writing about Aram’s autism has literally made me cry twice during the crafting of this review), my older brother is autistic. Due to some seizures, he’s stopped being able to read. I told him about Aram in Dragon Mage, and he started crying. He said, “Everyone thinks we’re too stupid to save the day but we’re not.” And now he is trying to learn how to read again and using this book to do so. 

It. Matters.

I don’t really know how else to sell this book to you other than to tell you to read it. It’s a perfect blend of everything. Familiar and new. Passion and adventure. Pitched battles, and quiet moments so vividly described you can’t help but feel like you are right there, in the book alongside Aram and Markus while they grapple with fate, the world, and themselves. 

The book drops on January 8. Do yourself a favor, and pre-order it. 

5/5 stars

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