Red Dragon Five, by John Phythyon, is a fantasy-thriller mash-up, and the second novel in his Wolf Dasher series. It features the adventures of a James Bond-esque hero named Wolf Dasher, codenamed Shadow Six in Her Majesty's Shadow Service. Set in a world with clear parallels to our own, Wolf Dasher uses special magical abilities and equipment to stop a terrorist organization from acquiring a new doomsday weapon.
I am not an avid reader of the spy thriller. In my youth I read some Tom Clancy and Larry Bond, but the genre is one that I have not spent much time following outside of James Bond movies. However, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I am a fan of fantasy. The opportunity to read a book which combined both elements together was intriguing. How could I pass it up?
The book begins by introducing us to Wolf Dasher while he infiltrates a secret base operated by the elven terrorist organization, The Sons of Frey. As an Asatru, the invoking of one of the Norse deities with connection to a terrorist organization raised an eyebrow, but I'm not about to get bent out of shape just because of something small like. We discover that Wolf Dasher is something called a Shadow, a human who has been imbued with magical abilities by something called The Rift, which can apparently communicate with those touched by its energies, offering them advice in rare situations. Wolf's powers include the ability to be completely unseen while remaining still in the shadows, seeing magical auras, and a form of postcognition. Useful traits for a secret agent to have, to be certain! We also learn that he works for a nation called Urland, which is a sworn enemy of another nation called Phrygia, which is quickly revealed to be a fantasy version of communist Russia. Urland's corresponding nation is, presumably, Great Britain, though one character – an amble-bellied general with a generally bad disposition and inability to speak in an inside voice – reminded me of a more American stereotype, leading me to believe that Urland is Great Britain and the United States combined.
Wolf quickly discovers that the Director of Operations for the Sons of Frey, Hassam Teargarden, has arrived at the base. With a description for the elf including dark skin, and the name "Hassam," it quickly seemed obvious that elves correlate to this world's Middle Eastern population.
This is the first issue that I had with Red Dragon Five. I don't mind the idea of elves representing a particular human nationality – actually, any departure from Tolkien elves is welcome, so far as I am concerned – but mixing Middle Eastern names with western fantasy names and cultures is a big "no, no" in my book. Middle Eastern elves are interesting. Hell, they're damn near unique as far as I can think of. Don't water them down with elements outside that culture – revel in that uniqueness! Mr. Phythyon did an excellent job of portraying the dissension and sectarian conflict rampant in the Middle East, making it a shame that elves with the names like Teargarden, Spellbinder, and Honeyflower had to spoil the flavor. Further, the religious sects at the heart of the conflict in the book continue this trend. The major religion seems to worship a prophet of God named Frey (clearly an Islamic reference, spoiled by the use of a Norse god for the prophet). Frey had multiple followers, and two of those followers' teachings and interpretations of Frey's words created the sects which are at the heart of the religious conflict in Red Dragon Five, the Shendali and the Freyalans.
The first scene in which I read about the religious persecution of the Shendali citizens of Alfar by Freyalan militias was excellent. It immediately evoked memories of news reports of sectarian violence in the Middle East. This gave the elves an immediate flavor and accessibility that I loved. That flavor was diminished when I discovered that the Freyalans were following the teachings of Freya (another Norse deity). Too many spices can ruin a great dish, and the end result was that the elven nation of Alfar felt… flat. Ultimately I saw it as a traditional western fantasy setting, revoking the uniqueness that I got in the earlier parts of the book (which returned when Wolf visits Jifan, a Shendali-controlled elvish nation).
I don't think any multi-national spy thriller would be complete without political interaction, and Red Dragon Five gives you plenty of that. There is a clear effort to demonstrate how the sectarian conflicts between the Shendali and Freyalans are tearing apart the nation of Alfar and rendering the government helpless. Sadly, much of the political action is heavily foreshadowed, leaving little surprise for how the government's attempts to contain the violence backfire and create more problems for Alfar. The government officials seem overly heavy-handed while trying to appear subtle, like someone trying to steal from your pocket while showing off for a filming crew. There are a few missed opportunities to highlight certain personalities. There is a rousing speech about patriotism by an official described as moderate and likely to go with the majority on any vote, but we never actually see examples of this meek behavior from him to truly demonstrate how shocking and effective his taking a firm stand on an issue truly is. Another character seems like a complete tool in the pocket of one of the sects, but in a private scene with a religious agitator shows a different side altogether which gives the character far more depth than shown in the previous scenes. Sadly, that character makes no appearance at all after this, so we never get to see more of this development. It seems that the entire purpose of the scene is to show how inept the government officials are by giving the sect leader the perfect opportunity to cause more trouble in Alfar.
Generally speaking, the scenes featuring Wolf Dasher are excellent, and follow a very clear spy thriller formula: locate the enemy base, infiltrate the enemy ranks, and then get in over your head. The scenes are quite enjoyable, but there were a few things that left me scratching my head. Dasher, as I mentioned earlier, is clearly a sort of fantasy James Bond, and he is described as having field experience that newer Shadows would greatly benefit from, yet he makes puzzling mistakes that seem like rookie errors, and there is an emphasis on his worry of being discovered that seems unlike what a veteran secret agent would feel – particularly one who apparently was involved in other deep cover operations in the past. Despite these inconsistencies, the action in the scenes is quite good, with Wolf not being overly-dependant on his Shadow-powers.
No James Bond spy thriller would be complete without cool gadgets, and the world of Wolf Dasher has them. From a ring that makes a human appear to be an elf, a torq which allows you to breathe water temporarily, to a flying carpet, and more. Magic is the general alternative to "high tech" in the world of Wolf Dasher. Enchantments allow a ship to act as a submarine, or for small one-man boats to act as jet skis, which really helps the spy thriller aspect of the setting. Elves are described as being far superior to humans in terms of magical ability, and many of the terrorists use wands to turn themselves into suicide bombers, enhancing the Middle Eastern feel for the sectarian violence. One thing that would have been nice was for humans to be slightly more technologically advanced, allowing them to work on merging their technology with elven magic, but that's probably more of a personal wish than a necessity. The magic items as spy gadgets work, but in a way it reduces what I love about spy gadgets: common everyday items which turn out to be unique tools. A watch that shoots a laser has become cliché, but it's a neat tool that makes sense for a secret agent to have; a magic wand that does the same just seems like something that would stand out if you were searched.
Overall, Red Dragon Five was a fun book. It presented a unique flavor of spy thriller and fantasy mixed together, marred somewhat by populating a Middle Eastern setting with western fantasy elements. The plot can be a bit predictable in places, especially to those who follow the spy thriller formula. This is the second novel in the Wolf Dasher series, proceeded by the novel, State of Grace, and a short story, The Darkline Protocol. I was able to follow the storyline and the setting without previous exposure to the other books, which is excellent. Most importantly, despite what I felt were some flaws in the book, when I finished it I was interested in reading State of Grace and continuing with the series, a triumph for any book. If you're new to fantasy and wanting to dip your toes in the genre, Red Dragon Five can make an excellent jumping-off point thanks to its merging with the spy thriller genre and familiar setting. Red Dragon Five and other Wolf Dasher stories are currently available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com.