REVIEW: Dragon Temple Saga by Janine Cross

Like her half-breed mother, young Zarq Darquel can’t always hold her tongue. A peasant on a large dragon estate, she goes unnoticed by the Temple of the Dragon—until she accidentally captures the attention of an eccentric and dangerous dragonmaster, unleashing a storm of tragedy. Her clan is plunged into destitution, her beautiful sister, Waivia, sold into slavery, and her mother lost to madness.

Desperate to find Waivia, Zarq and her delirious mother flee through the underworld of their land. Consumed with the desire for revenge, Zarq develops a taste for the highly addictive venom of the dragons she has been taught to revere—and with this poison, she imbibes their memories and glimpses a plot for social revolution. But to achieve it, she must defy not just sexual taboos and patriarchal conventions, but the Emperor who rules her nation.

Warnings: bestiality, sexual assault and rape, depictions of racism and misogyny, drug abuse and addiction, genital mutilation

Category: M/F, F/F

The Dragon Temple Saga is a trilogy of dark fantasy novels about one woman’s life in a country that reveres and worships dragons. It weaves political upheaval, extensive worldbuilding, and feminist explorations of misogyny, racism, and trauma all together in an incredibly visceral and heart wrenching narrative. Zarq’s journey through hardship, betrayal, and addiction bring her through a story whose driving force is ultimately reclaimed agency and sexual healing. While it gets blasted a lot for its strange content concerning the ritual bestiality, it is at the very least an incredibly unique series of novels that will be like little else you’ve ever read.

WRITING
This is a dark fantasy epic through and through. Structurally, the narrative falters a little bit, as the author seems to throw event after event at Zarq without much narrative payoff. Although the lack of character agency in the plot is a little frustrating, the story is certainly gripping and engaging. I found myself glued to the page to find out what would befall poor Zarq next- and how she would get out of it. Her journey through a hostile world rife with enemies and systemic oppression is a roller coaster of tragedy, and I very much enjoyed its twists and turns. That said, the ending feels a little rushed, and some of its final twists didn’t feel as strongly fleshed out as I would have liked. While the author has a strong sense of world and thematic resonance, there is less in the way of structure and balance, or foreshadowing follow through. Events fly by one after the other and Zarq meets each of them the same way she met the last one. Some of this is clearly intentionally subversive of traditional fantasy tropes, but I found those subversions to be a little less than satisfying, personally.

EMOTIONAL ENGAGEMENT
Unfortunately this series drops the ball on giving us well fleshed out and interesting characters to follow. Zarq is a bit bland in personality, and what glimpses we do get of her personality are swiftly undercut by the fact that she spends the entire story reacting to the plot rather than doing much herself or spending much time in reflection. She has very strong feelings, but her feelings rarely go beyond the instinctual, and thus her motivations are often hard to follow, and she is often frustratingly stubborn. She isn’t a heroic figure at all, and while she becomes embroiled in revolution, it is a very long time into the story before she really feels on board with it. The side characters are all more or less varying shades of the same person as well- none of them really felt all that distinct from each other. It ended up being hard to keep track of all the vaguely dominating men with their own political agendas who wanted to use and then betray her, as they were all more or less the same person with different faces. And for all that there were multiple villains, they were never really utilized to their fullest potential. I would have loved to have actually seen Kratt dominate her, torture her for information, to really make me fear his presence in the narrative, but the scenes we get with them interacting are few and far between. I never felt properly afraid of the villains, rather I was in a state of anxiety around the plot, not the characters. What sordid, unlucky disaster would occur next?

That said, the most emotional resonance that I did get from these books was in its depictions of addiction. Zarq is a venom addict, and the slow ways that that destroys her (even as if often times saves her) was so heartbreaking that I couldn’t look away. Time and again, from cravings to withdrawals to ecstasy to self loathing, this book did a lot to really explore these experiences and the toll that they took on its characters.


WORLDBUILDING
Where this series really shines is in the worldbuilding. The author has done such a brilliant job in fleshing out a self contained society, lush and vibrant, full of all kinds of people. From the religion of dragon worship to the economic realities of dragon husbandry and the ways that those two things interact, to the daily lives and cultures of the serfs and how that differs from the upper class, all of it feels so alive and organic. It is gut-wrenchingly oppressive, with a lot of explorations of the ways in which race, gender, wealth, and class, all interact to varying degrees. Many reviewers have blasted the books for the amount of conlangs present, but I believe that the conlangs of the setting, which feature a whole bunch of regionally specific linguistic structures, give it a lot of it’s richness.

Aside from the social and political arenas of the setting, there is also a great amount of dragon lore built into this world, and is an integral part of its scenery. Whether dragons are in fact divine or not is a point that is left up to interpretation, but the nature of venom and its usage and the nature of the sacred ritual in which a woman has sex with dragons to hear and hallucinate dragonsong are all very much a part of the journey through this unique setting. There’s also an interesting trans narrative to the lore of the divine dragons, which informs a subtle gender politic in the story.

STEAMINESS
When it comes to sex content, this is one of the most unique books I have read. There is a fair bit of sexual scenes, but most of the sex that occurs in the book either occurs offscreen or is only briefly described. That is, of course, with the exception of the sex scenes that take place between Zarq and the dragons. Yes, this is the aspect of the book that gets criticized the most by reviewers: the bestiality. In an ancient and secret ritual, Zarq is subjected to oral sex with dragons on a regular basis, which not only gives a euphoric sexual experience but also brings vivid visions of the dragon’s thoughts and memories. These scenes are exceptionally well written, and convey a whole host of interesting details. One of the principle problems many have with these scenes, aside from the squick factor of the concept, is that Zarq is circumcised early on in the story, and as such her enjoyment of sex later on is, to many, unrealistic. While I do not know enough about the practise to know what sex might feel like for victims of such genital mutilation, I did find that Zarq finding sexual solace with dragons read very much like a healing narrative. Dragon venom seems to have a temporarily rejuvenative property, as well as aphrodisiac effects, and the spiritual component to her ecstasy made what ended up being incredibly esoteric scenes feel all the more meaningful.

There were also quite a few scenes of Zarq taking on women as lovers later in the series, as she begins to heal from her experiences. The abject cruelty she is subjected to at the hands of rapist men contrasts so sharply to the scenes of spiritual enlightenment with dragons and then later tender love making with women, was such an interesting inclusion in a genre that so routinely subjects its female characters to brutality but almost never showcases their own sexuality.

Read this if you’ve ever wanted a truly sensual epic about dragons and politics and queer narratives, because this delivers in spades. It is a tragedy in a lot of ways, and it wrestles with trauma in ways that will ring very true to a lot of readers. It is a hard read to be sure, and is full of brutality and sorrow. And while it’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of plot structure, its strengths more than make up for its weaknesses.

Have you read The Dragon Temple Saga? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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