The world changed when dragons rose from their slumber beneath the earth, but dragons were not the only change to come.
They warned of demons—monsters that would emerge from the very pit of hell to wreak havoc on our world. The dragons had come to select riders who, with the dragons, would provide reinforcements against the coming carnage. But if it takes dragons to defeat those monsters, what hope does humanity have?
Not much, and soon, even with the dragons’ aid, civilization crumbles in the ashes of its former self, burned more with every Killing Moon.
Now only the city of New Madrid remains. It may soon face its own demise from underneath—but not if French Heavener has anything to say about it. With dragon rider Saavin, he’ll travel to the very cave where the demons hide. With her dragon Banshee and the last courageous band of humans, dragons, and riders, they’ll save New Madrid.
Or die trying.
I met author Terry Maggert at LibertyCon several years ago, snagged by the tagline for his then-latest book: “Come for the waffles. Stay for the magic.” Unfortunately, despite combining two of my favorite things in the world, Halfway Dead had not yet released, so instead I opted to try the next best thing, which was “the apocalypse but with dragons,” a.k.a. Banshee.
The reason why this is review is so late is 1) life, which required me to 2) read it twice, which I needed to do anyway because my first reaction was *excited pterodactyl noises.* This is the kind of reaction every author hopes to elicit, but unfortunately it does not make for an articulate review.
My now-articulate response: Banshee is a must-read for fans of dragons, apocalyptic fiction, vividly realized worlds, and competent, capable characters.
Of all the characters, Saavin is the most nondescript, but this is largely because she’s so defined by her role as a dragon rider who gets stuff done—because in this world, if you don’t get stuff done, you die, even if you have a dragon on your side. The more clearly-realized French is equally as competent as she is, though in a different way: A product of Appalachia, French knows how to survive in coarse conditions, especially in terms of gathering and organizing resources, but he’s far from the stereotypical hillbilly one might expect. He carries the novel and keeps most of the cast alive through sheer planning alone, and it was refreshing to read about a “hillbilly” who was not only more than a caricature, but an admirable leader. I’m not sure that I’d follow him into the hell cave, but I’d definitely follow him elsewhere.
Outside of Saavin and French, the cast is huge, but just as well characterized. None of the characters are the bombastic badasses one might expect of a novel like this, but many are badass in realistic ways, from the Paddy-Macs, a family of sharp-shooters, to Harriet Fleming, a New Madrid leader who knows she’s dying from terminal illness but still does her job, despite both internal and external odds. Of course, humans wouldn’t be human without some politics, which is where Colvin Watley and his lackeys come in. He’s a charismatic, folksy type well suited to the personality of his surroundings; he’s also a manipulative, useless a-hole who wants power and influence in New Madrid but doesn’t have the skills to merit it. Still, that hasn’t stopped him from gaining some traction against French, and the conflict there is nearly as intense as the conflict against the demons—perhaps more so, since a Watley victory implies the inevitable loss of the last human outpost, all because of local politics. The balance of apocalyptic conflicts and relatable conflicts are half of what make this novel work so well.
The other half is the world. While I love dragons in all situations, I especially like when authors place them in modern settings because there’s no way for a dragon to make a small impact. A creature as huge and epic as a dragon irrevocably changes the society around it, and it’s always fun to see how authors choose to express those changes. (Well, fun for the reader. In Banshee’s case, humans face so much hellacious* crap that, well, the apocalypse happens. But in their defense, the dragons were trying to stop that.)
That said, Banshee is primarily a world-building novel. The circumstances and history of the setting are as much a part of the novel as the characters attempting to survive it, and though the characters are interesting and the plot moves at a steady pace, it’s frequently interrupted by records from the Bulwark Archival Materials, which provide a look at what’s going in the world outside (or before) the main characters’. On my first read-through, I found these a little jarring, as they slow the momentum of the plot and sometimes don’t contribute to the narrative immediately surrounding them. However, on my second read, I actually enjoyed them quite a lot. They provide flesh to a world that would have been a mere skeleton had the novel dedicated itself to a straightforward storyline, and though not all are strictly necessary to the plot, they season it nicely, providing glimpses of the resources derived from the demons, the origins and personalities of the other dragons, etc.
The cast of dragons is pretty huge, too, and I regret not being able to spend more time with them, especially Banshee. Despite his name being the title of the book, his significance never seems to be greater than that of the other main characters, and I spent the novel hoping for that special detail or scene that would make him stand out above the rest. It doesn’t happen, but then, all the characters are pretty epic anyway, so it’s not much of a loss.
My only other gripe has to do with the minor character Orontes, who pops up to catalyze the story, disappears to the background for most of the rest, and then pops up at the end again for an unexpected twist that I couldn’t justify even after my second reading. However, it is a twist that demands a sequel, to which I say PLZ TERRY MAGGERT I NEED MORE DRAGONS.
In the meantime, now I can start on Halfway Dead.
*Note: Though there are frequent references to hell and demons, the demons are called so less for religious reasons, more because they come from underground and look like the illegitimate love children of Satan and every animal that wants to kill you. It’s about as religious as Doom.