My rating: 4 out of 5
My copy of Eon: Dragoneye Reborn had been sitting on my classroom library shelf (and on my to-read list) for a while before I finally felt the urge to tackle it. I had some doubts; I had heard a lot about it, particularly when I’d been doing research on YA books with LGBTQ characters, but was worried that it would be all hype and no bite. After all, there are an awful lot of mediocre YA books out there with dragons in them; as a teen, I would have consumed them all haphazardly regardless of quality, but as an adult reader I have less time and broader interests. When it came time to close up my classroom for Christmas break, though, I grabbed Eon and took it with me — and I’m glad I did. It wasn’t really what I was expecting, but it was a darned good ride.
The novel and its sequel, Eona, take place in a fictional country that bore an initial overwhelming resemblance to feudal China (although as the story goes on, strong Japanese and other Asian elements are woven in). This country is protected by twelve energy-dragons, each corresponding to cardinal directions, elements, and the signs of the Chinese zodiac. The general population can’t see or sense the dragons, but every generation produces a handful of boys who possess not only the ability to see the dragons but to work with them as Dragoneyes. These boys are identified, trained, and then presented for that year’s ascending dragon to choose between. If chosen, the boy will partner with the dragon, gaining supernatural powers and great social prestige in exchange for allowing the dragon to sap his vitality or hua. Over the course of the twelve years of partnership, these boys become old men.
Eon is one of the boys who wants to become a Dragoneye, but he has two major hurdles to overcome. First, he is physically handicapped in a culture that shuns any signs of physical imperfection — and because part of the selection process involves martial arts, he is at a disadvantage from the very beginning.
Eon’s second obstacle is that he is actually a girl in disguise. In this fiercely patriarchal land, women aren’t allowed to become Dragoneyes — in fact, they’re really not allowed to be anything. Females have no value beyond servitude and breeding stock; they have no education, no rights, and no voice. Eon, who has been pretending to be a boy for so long that he thinks of himself as male, is hoping to maintain his secret and be chosen by that year’s dragon so that he can ascend from poverty, bring honor to his sponsor, and have a chance at a real life.
Balancing out these two problems, Eon is powerfully gifted at being able to see the energy-dragons. Most potential Dragoneyes will only see their own dragon; Eon can see all of them, at will, and seems to be able to communicate with them to some degree.
It obviously wouldn’t be much of a book if Eon wasn’t chosen by a dragon, so I was prepared for the anticlimax of the selection ceremony. That’s when Goodman delivered her first “gotcha” of the story, which I won’t divulge in the hopes that you’ll read it for yourself, but which lays the foundation for the entire saga.
From that point on, Eon and Eona comprise a riveting tale of secrets, betrayal, revolution, war, survival, and redemption. Despite the invisible drove of dragons on the margins, the books never really feel like fantasy novels. Instead, the emphasis is on the human characters and their struggles to come to terms with themselves, each other, and their circumstances. Eon must decide who he or she truly is, and what sort of person s/he wants to be, as power threatens to corrupt. Her friends and compatriots, many of them also with unique gender-identity issues (this is a land where eunuchs are still commonly used as servants, and where male-to-female transgendered people can possess a certain amount of spiritual capital, similar to the “two-spirits” of the Cherokee nation) must establish their roles in the maelstrom that comes to surround Eon and the young emperor. The emperor must decide how to save his country and what relationship he wants with a Dragoneye that he may or may not be able to fully trust… And as Eona begins, Eon’s chief antagonist must also determine whether he is villain or antihero.
Goodman treats all of her characters with even-handed respect, by which I mean she doesn’t use these novels to make some sort of political or social statement about sexuality and gender identity. Eon, Lady Dela (M-F transgender) and Ryko (eunuch) are merely people with the same sort of troubles and triumphs and day-to-day lives as everyone else around them. It’s refreshing to see LGBTQ characters in a fantasy or science fiction novel period, but doubly great for it to be a “no big deal” sort of depiction. (Okay, so Eon’s issues are a big deal, but that’s more in terms of her society’s attitude toward women than anything else.)
Ultimately, Eon and Eona reminded me a bit of Mulan, a bit of stories in the vein of The Last Airbender, and a bit of samurai-type epics like Shogun. It reads at times like a historical fiction and at times like a light fantasy, and has elements that will appeal to male or female readers — a nice thing to find in a YA novel. Mostly, though, it was a lot of fun to read and definitely well worth the time (and the wait).