I have been on the search for something to replace the gap in my reading life left by The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss during the interminable wait for the third book in the trilogy to come out. A tall order, considering that this series is not just my favourite fantasy series ever, but the books are probably up there among my favourites of all time. I’d had my eye on Dawn of Wonder, the first book in the Wakening series, for a little while and decided to get the audiobook after watching a review on YouTube by Kaitlin (her channel is called Kitty G and if you’re ever on the lookout for good SFF recommendations she’s the one to go to). Unfortunately, I didn’t like it as much as she did.
The story opens in a small village called the Misty Vales when a bright and gifted young boy of 13 called Aedan (from whose perspective the entire story is told) single-handedly uncovers a plot hatched by slave traders to take over the village and take its residents captive. Although he manages to foil the plot, a local nobleman’s daughter gets captured and Aedan and his family are forced to flee to a distant city after the nobleman spreads rumours that Aedan was in league with the slavers. In the city of Castath, his talents are eventually discovered by a general and he is sent to train to be an elite soldier at the city’s academy. We then follow his lessons, his adventures and mishaps with his motley crew of friends and, as the plot advances, events that put him in increasing danger. The city of Castath is under threat from foreign invaders, but this is not all: rumours abound that something else is stalking the land of Thirna, that something ancient is stirring, or even wakening…
This was a long old audiobook, and while it is true that a lot is crammed into its 29 or so hours, it did take a while to get going. It takes four hours before Aedan and his family even arrive in Castath. What I don’t think helped was that I went into this not knowing a single thing about it and kept waiting for the magic system to appear. I was a good quarter of the way through before it finally dawned on me (no pun actually intended there) that there might in fact not be one, which was disappointing. Once the setting of the academy was introduced and Aedan was off having regular adventures with his band of pals, getting into mischief and sparring regularly with his arch-enemy Malik, I couldn’t help making comparisons with Patrick Rothfuss’s University, Kvothe’s friends Simon and Wilem and his own arch-enemy Ambrose. Dawn of Wonder definitely came off worse in these comparisons. There was no magic, the writing just felt less engaging and the humour felt more juvenile.
Where this book does excel is in its characters, the relationships between them and Renshaw’s excellent insight into human nature. The parts of the book which, for example, deal with Aedan’s lifelong abuse at the hands of his father and his resulting post-traumatic stress, his grief at the fate of his childhood friend and his friendships with the boys in his dormitory, were really wonderful to listen to. The attention to detail that goes into Renshaw’s world-building, mostly depicted through the boys’ lessons, was stunning. From war strategy, to combat, to the history of the world that he has created including entire languages and cultures, it is clear that this book was a labour of love for Renshaw.
On the other hand, I found the plot really slow in places; I frequently realised that I had stopped listening and had to go back and relisten. Also, I found the story quite repetitive and formulaic. It appears to follow the formula:
- Aedan/Aedan and friends get into some kind of sticky situation
- Things appear to not be going their way and there is a bit of a hoo-ha
- Aedan suddenly comes up with a brilliant and strategically clever plan to save everyone
While I appreciate that Aedan is an extremely gifted young man (a bit like Kvothe, with echoes of the latter’s lip and hot-headedness) I have to admit that the fact that he was ALWAYS the one to notice things, to come up with solutions and generally save the day did get a bit boring after a while.
However, I have come to realise that I do not like listening to epic fantasy on audio, something which might have contributed to the lacklustre effect this book had on me. I think that a book with this level of detail, which contains lots of unfamiliar words, languages, names and places, needs to be read in print so you can actually see the unfamiliar words, decipher the languages and get acquainted with the world in a way you just can’t when you’re listening. Maybe if I’d read this in print I would have enjoyed it more. I’ve had a similar experience with Brian McClellan’s Sins of Empire, which I got halfway through before giving up. Ditto with American Gods by Neil Gaiman.
All in all, this was a book that I was really looking forward to and wanted to love, but it just didn’t give me enough to live up to its promises. During some of the more interesting passages (and don’t get me wrong, there were plenty), I debated giving it 3 or 3.5 stars. However, there were just too many flaws and I’ve finally settled on 2.5 of 5 stars, much to my dismay. If you’re interested in reading it though, definitely still give it a go – I think I’m in the minority in not loving this book and also I accessed it in a format that just didn’t lend itself to me enjoying it as much as I might otherwise have.
Star Rating: 2.5/5