According to author Evan Winter’s official bio, the British-born son of South African parents was inspired to start writing when his own son was born, and “he realised that there weren’t many epic fantasy novels featuring characters who looked like him.” His African-inspired debut The Rage of Dragons helps fill that void, and io9 is thrilled to share an excerpt from the epic tale.
First, here’s a brief summary of Winter’s novel:
The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for almost two hundred years. Their society has been built around war and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.
Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war.
Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn’t get the chance.
Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him.
And here’s the full cover, followed by the excerpt:
Tau saw the hedena’s face, reliving the moment he killed her. In his dreams, she did not die silent. She screamed, deafening him, crushing him with her hate. He woke near midday, unsure he’d slept at all.
“You’ll feel raw,” his father said, stoking their hut’s cook fire. “During a fight your blood’s up and your body does everything it can to keep going. When the danger passes, it shuts down.” He offered Tau the vegetables he’d boiled. Tau waved them off.
“Eat,” Aren said. “You’ll be training today.”
Tau didn’t feel like training and thought that if he never touched a sword again it would signal a life lived well.
Aren must have seen something in his face, because he looked away from Tau and stared into the pot’s murk. “I wish I could give you more,” he said. “I wish …” His voice broke, and he rubbed the back of his hand against his mouth, clearing grime that wasn’t there. “Tau … you need to know I’m going to push you. You test for the Ihashe soon, and that’s what I thought I was preparing you for, a test. I’d forgotten how bad things can get. I’d forgotten how little of this has to do with sword forms, exercises, or techniques.”
Aren reached out, coming close to putting a hand on Tau’s shoulder. He let it fall short, making a fist.
“I’m teaching you how to kill,” he said. “And I need to teach you how to be good enough at it to survive.”
Tau nodded. It was what his father wanted.
“It’ll be twice the training sessions from now until the testing. We’ll add mornings to our normal afternoons. I have my duties, so your mornings will be with Nkiru and some of the other men, the ones with a good head for sword work.” Aren stood, reminded Tau to eat, and left.
Tau didn’t eat. He was supposed to meet Jabari and went to buckle on his sword belt and sword. Aren had made him clean his gear before letting him sleep, but Tau could still see it on the bronze. He could still see all the places the blood had been.
When he arrived for his afternoon training, Jabari was already in the fighting circle. “Tau!” he said.
“Well met, nkosi.”
“I feel like a mountain fell on me. Could hardly get out of bed. I’ve pain in places I didn’t know were there.” The Petty Noble smiled. “I nearly didn’t have to worry about any of that, though. I had to face my mother this morning. I thought she’d kill me.”
“Guess not?” Tau said, earning a laugh.
“She’d heard Aren’s report before seeing me. She was angry, very angry, but proud. You should have seen Lekan! He had to stand next to Mother, listening to her praise me. He looked like he’d be sick.” Jabari’s eyes glittered. “I could get used to this hero thing. Jabari Onai and Tau Tafari, the Chosen’s most feared warriors!”
“From your lips to the Goddess’s ears,” Tau told him as he lifted his practice sword and stepped into the fighting circle.
Jabari smiled. “May we always be pleasing in her eyes,” he intoned. “At you!” he said, attacking.
No one came to instruct them. Aren and his men would have a busy few days as they and the rest of the fief recovered from the raid. Aren always said the toughest part of a battle was afterward.
Part of his duty as inkokeli was to travel to the homes of the men who’d gone to the Goddess. Tau didn’t want to think about him visiting Tendaji’s family. He couldn’t imagine having to tell Tendaji’s wife she’d never see her husband again.
“What whirls in that head?” Jabari asked.
They were sitting and sweating on the edge of the fighting circle. Jabari had gotten the better of Tau. That was normal. The ease with which he had done it was not.
“I can’t get past last night,” Tau said.
“Of course not.”
“Did you sleep?” Tau asked.
“Barely,” Jabari said. “The rush hadn’t left me. I actually considered waking Lekan to talk to him about the battle. Can you believe that? Lekan!”
Tau slumped. “Not sure he would have appreciated it.”
Jabari laughed again. “As you say! Well, I’m not sure I could swing a blade of grass. I’m for the keep. Father suggested to Mother that Lekan and I should help the rebuilding effort at Daba. She agreed and I need to figure out when works best.”
“I’d like to help, if you don’t mind,” Tau said.
“Kind of you. We’ll do it together.” Jabari stood. “I’ll let you know when we make the first trip over.”
“Do you think … Will they come back?”
“Don’t know. They don’t usually attack the same place, but they don’t usually raid with that large a force either. Not a good start to the new queen’s reign. It’s also …” Jabari’s hesitation was unusual. He was always certain. “When Aren reported to my mother, he told her they’d identified five hedeni tribes among the dead, but the tribes don’t raid together. They join forces in the Wrist out of necessity. It’s the front line of the war. In raids, though, the tribes go it alone.” Jabari shook his head. “I’ll never understand the savages. They’re separate races. They feud with each other. But, they also cooperate and … mix.” Jabari’s distaste dripped off the last word.
The Chosen had been surprised when they’d discovered the hedeni were several races of man, each with unique gifts. They’d been shocked to learn that the races mixed, polluting their bloodlines, risking those gifts. Some in the Sah priesthood preached that it was this profane behaviour that caused the Goddess to curse them.
“They’re allying for raids now?” Tau asked.
“Let’s hope last night was unique.”
“From your lips,” Tau said, eliciting a nod from the Petty Noble.
Jabari reached over, placed his hands behind Tau’s head, and pulled him close. Their foreheads touched. “Whatever comes, we’re sword brothers. We’ll face our tests as the Chosen have always done, with sharp bronze.” He let go, slapped Tau playfully on the back of the neck, stood, and walked off toward the keep, whistling.
Tau prepared to leave. His body ached, but there was a nervous energy in him that wouldn’t let him rest, and as much as he didn’t feel like “playing sword,” he welcomed the distraction the exercise would give.
Groaning, he limbered up and pulled his blade free of its scabbard. He went through his forms, trying to be as perfect as possible, and, blinking sweat from his eyes, he made himself move faster and faster.
Tests, he thought, always tests. So much of Chosen culture revolved around fighting and tests, but he didn’t want to spend a cycle of his life at the Southern Ihashe Isikolo, sparring with other wood-headed brutes, just so they could all spend a tenth of their lives on the front lines of an unending war. He didn’t want to kill women and men he’d never met and, equally important, he didn’t want them to kill him.
He’d never even … Well, he shouldn’t imagine Zuri like that. He did, though. He did some nights, picture them married, behaving as married people might. Tau’s face felt hot, hotter than the sun’s heat seemed to merit.
Imagining would be all he’d ever get, if he went to war and couldn’t come back for six cycles plus one more for training. Seven cycles away, would Zuri even remember him? Even if she did, Ihashe weren’t known for making the best husbands, and after one battle and all the nightmares that had come with it, Tau could understand why. It didn’t mean he was about to forgive his mother for leaving them for a pretty-faced and soft-handed man from the Governor caste, but he couldn’t pretend he didn’t understand why she’d done it.
There was no love lost between Aren and Makena, his mother’s fancy husband, but the man did make his mother happy, and Tau didn’t want to begrudge her that. Being happy was all anyone wanted. He wanted to be happy. He thought he could be, if Zuri would have him.
He swung his dull practice sword harder, trying not to envy Makena. The man was several castes above Tau, and it always seemed like his life had been easy. He hadn’t even had to fight in the war or be made a Drudge. The lucky bastard passed his Ihashe testing but was injured badly enough to be dismissed. He was allowed to go back to his home to serve as an administrator instead of a warrior.
Of course, Aren didn’t think it was luck. He said the way Makena limped and the kind of break in his leg wasn’t the sort you got from training or a fall. It was, Tau had heard Aren say after a few drinks, the kind of injury a man got when he felt a crippled leg was a better thing than honorable service.
Tau swung for the neck of his pretend opponent. His father could look down on it all he liked, but the outcome didn’t seem so bad. Makena got to avoid the war and marry the woman he loved. As much as Tau admired his father, given a choice, he’d take Makena’s life.
Tau stumbled and almost fell as the realisation hit him like a thrown rock. He did have a choice. His best friend was the umbusi’s second son. His mother and her husband were two of the umbusi’s chief administrators. So long as Tau passed the Ihashe test, he would have fulfilled his duty and could not be made a Drudge.
And if he happened to be horribly injured shortly after the test … well, that would be a shame. He’d have to come home to Kerem, his family … and Zuri.
Tau exhaled, releasing tension he’d held for so long he’d forgotten it was there. He had a plan that could solve all his problems, and the thought filled him with relief and peace. It didn’t last long.
Shame chased away the sense of calm he’d only just found. He was Aren Solarin’s son, and avoiding his duty through deceit and selfishness was beneath him. His father had taught him better. That should have been the end of it, but he remembered the young woman he’d murdered in Daba, and the shame lost its grip.
He would not kill women and men in a war with no end. He would not be part of the madness. Tau had a way out and, by the Goddess, he’d take it.
He thrust a lethal blow at an illusory enemy, imagining it to be the life he’d been expected to lead. “I’m done with killing!” he said.
“You killed someone?”
“Cek!” he swore, swinging round to see another face from his dreams.
It was Zuri.
“Zuri? I-I didn’t …” He bowed his head, his face burning at the thoughts he’d just been having. “Apologies,” he said.
“No, I shouldn’t have startled you,” she said, her arched eyebrow letting him know that, startled or not, she had not expected to hear such language. “I was watching you train. You’re good.”
“You’re kind.” Tau sheathed his sword. He wanted to add that she was beautiful. He didn’t have the courage. “I’m not that good,” he said instead. “I just have the benefit of my father’s training. Jabari is better.” What made him say that? “I mean—”
Zuri raised a hand above her head, as if measuring a tall person. “He’s Noble,” she said. “Did you really kill someone?”
Tau went cold. “It was one of the hedeni.” He didn’t want to say more but was still recovering from the shock of it and couldn’t help but speak. “She was with two others. They tried to hurt a woman and child.”
“It’s fine. I just …” Tau struggled to even out his emotions. “I killed her.”
“You were defending Chosen lives.”
“It doesn’t feel that way.”
“If you didn’t fight, she’d have killed a woman and child. Would their deaths be a fair price for a clear conscience?”
That didn’t seem fair. “You came to argue?” Tau asked.
She looked hurt. “Is that what we’re doing?” She shook her head. “I came to see you,” she said, lifting her chin and taking a deep breath. “I came to …” She gave him a nervous smile, the edges of her mouth fluttering. “I came to …”
“What?” asked Tau, confused.
“Ah …” Zuri was steeling herself for something, then seemed to lose her nerve. “I’m surprised Aren didn’t whip the skin from your back,” she said.
Tau wasn’t in the mood for her teasing. “Jabari asked me to accompany him.”
The smile slipped from her face. He’d been too terse with her. He was an idiot.
“I saw Jelani,” she said. “She told me she saw you yesterday, before the battle. She told me you were on your way to find Jabari.”
“Jelani, her mouth has always been too large for her face.”
“Tau, Jabari is many things. He’s bold, handsome, tall—”
“Is he?” Tau asked.
“But he’s not impulsive. That characteristic I’d lay at someone else’s door.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I don’t want you to say anything. I came to … I wanted to see you.” Zuri had that strange look on her face again. “I wanted to make sure you were well. I needed to know that.”
She stepped closer, within arm’s reach, and suddenly, his arms felt heavier than boulders. She raised a hand and, hesitating, laid it on his chest. “Would you tell me, if you weren’t?”
Tau’s scalp beaded with sudden sweat. She’s being friendly, he told himself. She’s worried about a longtime friend. He looked down at her hand and back to her face. She was so close. He could almost—“The battle, w-we … I thought we had no hope,” Tau stammered.
“You fought. You kept us safe,” Zuri said, stepping closer.
Tau could feel her chest against his. “They had us. There were too many.” He couldn’t keep his mind on his words. Every time Zuri took a breath it was … distracting. “The hedeni were about to overrun us when the military arrived, with Guardians.”
Zuri’s eyes widened. “You saw dragons?”
Dragons. That was something he could talk about. “I’ve never seen one up close before.”
“I’ve never seen one at all,” Zuri said.
“They’re enormous. Black as shadows. I felt their fire. It’s … Well, it’s indescribable. And the Gifted controlling it—”
“Entreating. Gifted don’t control the Guardians, they call to them,” Zuri said. “How did she do it?”
“Eh … she lifted her arms and waved them around,” Tau said.
“She waved her arms around?” Zuri pursed her lips at him.
“I’m telling the truth.”
“I believe you.”
“No, you’re teasing me again,” Tau said, trying not to stare at her mouth.
“Never,” Zuri said, full lips curving into a bright smile, eyes sparkling. “Well, it sounds funny to think of a Gifted guiding Guardians by waving her arms around.”
“It doesn’t look like the way you’re saying it. It … You can feel their power.”
“Go on,” said Zuri, still close.
“There were other Gifted, like the one with the Ingonyama. The hedeni captured her when—”
“What?” Zuri’s smile vanished.
“They killed the Ingonyama and took the Gifted.”
She stepped back.
Why had he told her that? Did he want to describe the way the dead had looked too? “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“It’s my fault,” Zuri said, voice soft. “I’m asking about it like a child, imagining it’s all honour and glory, brave warriors and wondrous Gifted. It isn’t, is it?”
“No,” said Tau. “It isn’t.”
“No,” Zuri echoed, lowering her eyes.
Silence, and Tau had no clue how to fill it.
“Tau, I came here for a reason. When I heard you went to Daba, I was so worried I … Tau, we don’t have long before you leave for Ihashe training, and I won’t look back with regrets. I’d rather live with a thing done poorly than do nothing and always wonder how things could have been.”
He should have told her she was beautiful when he had the chance.
Zuri stepped in and kissed him. His entire body tensed with the shock of it. Her lips, first pressing softly on his mouth, became insistent, and his pulse pounded in his ears as his scalp tingled.
He didn’t know what to do with his mouth, or his hands, and it felt like a warm fire lanced across his skin in the places where their bodies touched. Tau put his arms around her, holding her, pleading to the Goddess to let this moment last forever. He wanted to die like this, with her in his—She ended the kiss.
He opened his eyes, surprised to see the sun still shone. For a few precious breaths nothing but Zuri had existed.
“We should stop,” she said, her voice deeper than usual. “We don’t want to go too far.”
Tau’s mind felt stuffed with grass. “Zuri …,” he said, astonished at how needy he sounded. He was close to begging and wasn’t sure what for.
Her eyes danced. “I did it,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I’d have the courage.” Her smile was a new day’s dawn. “I’ll see you soon, Tau Tafari.”
She slipped out of reach and walked away. Tau watched her go, the most perfect being who had ever existed.
“We have the rest of Grow and Harvest before the testing,” she called to him, before disappearing below the rise of the mountainside.
Tau stood there, trying to understand some part of what had happened. He couldn’t make sense of it, but somehow, his life had become better.
Excerpt from Evan Winter’s The Rage of Dragons reprinted by permission. Copyright Orbit.