"Eon: Dragoneye Reborn," the first half of Australian Alison Goodman's planned two-volume, Asian-influenced dragon-based series, is wonderful, with its whirlwind of gender exploration, imperial ambition, dragon lore and dissection of nature versus nurture. While there are many set pieces familiar from previous fantasy series, Goodman has freshened up creaking plot devices to produce a slow-building work that over and over again challenges reader expectations.
The eponymous hero, Eon, resembles the protagonists of shelf-loads of fantasy series. He is 12 years old and one of a field of candidates to be the next apprentice or Dragoneye, a person who can commune with and direct one of the 12 "energy dragons." So far, so familiar. The reader knows how this will go: The orphan boy almost has to be The One, Goodman will slowly reveal her thrilling inventions through his limited viewpoint, and we can all sit at home happy that the boys and men are out there looking after us. But Eon is actually a 16-year-old girl, Eona, disguised -- and even disabled as part of that disguise -- by her master in a last-gasp attempt to regain his status as a dragon lordand to stop an attempted coup on the emperor by his brother.
However, Eona is not the one chosen by the newly ascendant energy dragon, the Rat Dragon. Instead she is chosen by the long-missing Mirror Dragon, who is making her first appearance in 500 years. And to make it more confusing for Eona, all the other dragons bow to her dragon, making her the most important person in the kingdom after the emperor. This is all, of course, much to the frustration of the new Rat Dragoneye, Lord Ido, who had planned a coup based on his ascendancy.
As she is thrust from lowly apprentice into the heart of court politics, Eona's main guides are the Lady Dela, a "contraire," or man living as a woman, and her bodyguard, Ryko, a eunuch. The interplay within this trio (none of whom are living as they were born) -- their hopes for one another and the secrets all of them are keeping -- is the most fascinating and unique part of "Eon." Situations take on unspoken dimensions that depend on who knows what about whom.
When Eona hides her true name from her dragon, she is prevented from being able to fulfill her role in saving the empire. She becomes sure that her femininity, her "moon" side, is her weakness and tries to subdue it with "sun drug." Between this and Lord Ido's murderous ambition, the book rushes to a bloody climax but in the middle of it all, Eona -- and Goodman -- makes another unusual choice that will open up the story in the next book to be something that is, again, different from the normal run of fantasy blockbusters.
Eon suffers on rereading from the weakness of relying on the timed release of information for tension; on rereading, although the book is by no means flat, much of the tension is gone. However, that may be balanced by the reader's urge to reexamine events from each character's point of view as his or her agenda becomes clearer.
There are sections of the novel in which Eona's true gender is so far buried that it surprises the reader when it does rear its head. She has lived as a boy for so long that her gender and sexuality are uncomfortable unknowns to her and she has no basis for knowing how to behave as a young woman who might be attractive to the powerful men around her.
In "Eon," women are not given access to positions of power and it is Goodman's focus on this inequality, still so strong in our world, that gives her novel its push into greatness. No matter the costumes and trappings of fantasy, what Goodman has wrought is a classical and captivating bildungsroman. Writers, editors, librarians and booksellers have their own folk knowledge and one of the well-known rules of thumb is that young girls will read fiction with either male or female protagonists whereas young boys will read only fiction with male protagonists. Perhaps "Eon's" disguised protagonist will not only introduce these boys to the other half of the world's experience, but also encourage them to explore fiction that doesn't exactly mirror their own lives. If so, Eona will have broken down another set of gender barriers.
Grant is the publisher of Small Beer Press, in Easthampton, Mass.