Themes of Revolution in The Dragon Prince

The Dragon Prince recently dropped a 3rd season on Netflix, and continues to break ground in its diversity of representation, which is as vibrant, unique, and exciting as its fantastical setting. But it also teaches some had lessons which other children’s media shies away from.

Sapphic Queens in the Dragon Prince’s World History

The first season gave us a mixed-race royal family in which a black man is the king. In pseudo-medieval fantasy settings, this is almost unheard of, unless the nation is exclusively made up of dark-skinned people. It also gave us a particularly loveable female knight who is hearing impaired – though I’ve found that every character in this series is loveable, even the antagonists. What brought particular joy to me was watching this character speak so expressively through sign, sometimes without another character vocalising for them, and never with any subtitles. The incredible effect of this is that the viewer begins to learn her sign, and when it is not translated, is excited to learn it. I can only imagine how exciting these extra bits of dialogue are to viewers, especially children, who communicate through ASL themselves and almost never see themselves represented.

Season two introduced a character with lesbian parents, who’s heroic demise is shown in flashback. Though this certainly falls into the Kill Your Gays trope, it doesn’t make them any different from most of the parental figures on the show, who are either heroically dead, toxic, or estranged.

This third season gave us something which is extremely rarely seen in children’s media – a male couple who are not just wholesome chaste companions, but shown sharing a passionate kiss. The Dragon Prince has a few ley lines which connect its various characters, arcs, and history. These are:

Questioning Deeply Held Beliefs. It is established from the start that humans are appropriators, who steal and corrupt magic because they cannot wield any on their own. There is nothing in the continuing establishment of the lore to refute this. Yet, one of our main characters discovers he is capable of innate magic through study and concentration. At this time, there is no explanation as to why this has happened. There is no Chosen One motif, no mystery of his birth – simply a passion to learn, and to question the status quo.

A symbol of shame for those who refuse to fight in a war they do not believe in, then turned into a symbol for a cause.

Being the First Generation to Break a Cycle of Violence. The main premise of The Dragon Prince’s politics involves a small group of young people trying to stop a war which has been perpetuated by the generations that came before. But it appears in other places too – for instance, the child queen who lost her lesbian mothers is told that her parents would have wanted her to arm her nation for war, and answer the call of her allies. She agrees. Yes, that is what her mothers would have wanted. But they also raised her to be her own person, and her own judgement was to say no to war. It is not a betrayal of her family’s values, but her own way of expressing her independent ones. Before there is ever any hope for peace, The Dragon Prince shows us an assassin refusing to kill in cold blood, a child caring for a baby dragon who is the offspring of the dragon who killed his mother. A regiment of soldiers who lay down their arms and are branded cowards for refusing to fight a war they do not believe in. The show shines with small acts of gentleness that require great bravery.

Recognising Toxic Behaviour in a Loved One. Season three takes on a topic which is almost never handled by children’s media with any subtlety or realism: Being gaslit by a toxic parent. In Disney’s Tangled, our heroine needs to be a naive, isolated shut-in to be duped by her mother and not considered a complete idiot. The mother is earmarked for villainy to the audience from the very beginning, and therefore they learn nothing about how to spot a truly manipulative adult. In The Dragon Prince, Lord Viren is not depicted this way. He is styled as a villain by his profession and color palette, but so are Claudia and Soren with their respective dark magic and bullying. The three of them are depicted as more complicated than just the colors they wear. Viren’s two children are accomplished young adults with their own careers and passions, and yes, it is the cleverer one who remains trusting of him even when he has slowly turned into a monster. This is another valuable lesson – when you are the favorite child, it can be more difficult to see the warning signs, and easier to dismiss the alarm of your less-loved sibling. That is perhaps the most difficult lesson The Dragon Prince manages to get across – someone can truly love you, and be a villain too.

The pattern the antagonists in The Dragon Prince go through is almost a mirror opposite of Steven Universe, which presents binary evildoers and slowly reveals there is more to them, and inevitably, gives them all a chance to redeem themselves. The Dragon Prince Begins with a vast array of characters from different sides of a political conflict, some with duties to their nation, their race, their profession, or their family. As the plot develops, decisions need to be made, and lines in the sand need to be drawn. Some give up duty to better serve their moral compass. Some manipulate their position to achieve their goals. Characters who were once troublesome to the protagonists come to fight for them, and some who were beloved turn into radicalised monsters.

It is very rare that a piece of media for children should pull no punches when it comes to the hard lessons one learns when growing up. Your nation is not always good. Your family is not always right. And sometimes being kind is the hardest thing you can do.

All images from thedragonprince.com

Review: The Red Threads of Fortune

The Red Threads of Fortune by nonbinary queer Singaporean author JY Yang picks up four years after the events of The Black Tides of Heaven and centers on the prophetic twin Mokoya. Where Black Tides was a coming-of-age story that takes place over several years, Red Threads is a story of grief and redemption told over the period of a few days. The sharp contrast in structure between the two novellas enables the exploration of different themes and accentuates the contrast between the twin protagonists.

 

Through much of book one, Akeha’s perspective of Mokoya’s life was that she was lucky. She had her prophetic visions, a beautiful loving partner in Thennjay, and a purpose in their mother’s protectorate. Early on in book two, it is revealed that the prophecies were always more of a curse as far as Mokoya was concerned. She was able to see visions of the future and yet nothing she did in the present could ever change the outcome. Ultimately it just made her feel helpless; as though she lacked any agency over her own life. In spite of all of that, after the accident and her daughter’s death, she finds herself missing the prophetic visions that no longer visit.

 

At its core, The Red Threads of Fortune is a story about the complicated and often contradictory ways that people deal with grief. The loss of a child is a particularly acute form of trauma, and four years after Mokoya still has not really moved on. She used Slackcraft to graft her daughter’s soul onto a raptor whom she aptly named Phoenix. She left Thennjay and spends her days recklessly hunting naga. She is paralyzed by unpredictable and overpowering memories that seem to come and go at will, much like her prophetic visions once did. It is within this context that she meets Rider.

 

Rider is a practitioner of Slackcraft from the Quarterlands who rides a tamed naga. When Mokoya meets them in the Gusai Desert, they are on a secretive mission of their own. When a massive naga attacks the Mechanist stronghold city Batanaar, both Mokoya and Rider are pulled into the thick of the conflict to save the city. As their unique bond develops, Mokoya is forced to confront her own feelings of helplessness that have plagued her since childhood.

 

The Red Threads of Fortune takes an unflinching look at grief and its lasting effects. Mokoya is in many ways a prisoner of her past, and before that she was a prisoner of her prophetic visions of the future. While the story takes some unexpected turns, the plot itself is resolved in the end, and the underlying themes left me with some resonating questions: How much control should we allow a past we can’t change to hold over us? How many of us believe we are powerful enough to change our fate? They are the sort of questions that individuals must answer for themselves, just like Mokoya had to.

 

It’s with this powerful theme, built on the world-building foundation of Black Tides, that The Red Threads of Fortune elevates the Tensorate series to a whole other level.

 

Next up: the third novella in the series: The Descent of Monsters.

Review: The Black Tides of Heaven

 

The Black Tides of Heaven by nonbinary queer Singaporean writer JY Yang is an impressive feat of both subtly and depth. While fantasy isn’t usually known for its brevity, Yang manages to deliver a richly textured world packed with fascinating characters in a single 236-page novella. Thankfully, this is the first of three  in the Tensorate series.

 

The story focuses on the twins Akeha and Mokoya, and spans 35 years from beginning to end. Akeha and Mokoya are the children of the Protector, a ruthless matriarch who rules her Protectorate through intimidation and bloodshed. The plot begins to take shape when Mokoya has a series of prophetic visions, which prompts their mother to try to use her child’s gift to her own advantage. While both twins are featured heavily in the early chapters, the narrative is driven primarily by Akeha’s journey. With all the attention on Mokoya, Akeha eventually flees their mother’s protectorate to forge his own path.

 

One of the most fascinating details of this world that Yang has created is that children are not assigned genders at birth. We see this play out in a number of unique ways throughout the story. Some children choose very young, others wait until much later, and others still choose to remain somewhere in between. Both Akeha and Mokoya, for instance, each use gender neutral pronouns for the first two parts of the book.  The cultural norm is to recognize gender as something that comes from within, and that in and of itself is a beautiful thing.

 

Beyond its fluid beliefs on gender, the society within the Protectorate suffers from massive wealth inequality. The greatest source of power in this world is the Slack, which draws its energy from different parts of nature. The way people wield this power is reminiscent of the Force in Star Wars, but as the story goes on, Yang gives a sense that it’s much more complex than an energy that binds the universe together. While most secrets of the Slack are kept secret by the Tensors, they are facing an uprising from the resistant Mechanists. The seeds of this war are sewn in the early chapters and gradually take route throughout the story.

 

Although the book is short, the story itself is large and expansive. The details are intricate yet never overwhelming.  Yang has managed to bring to life a vivid world by only showing us exactly what we need to see. Lucky for us, there are two more novellas after this one: The Red Threads of Fortune and The Descent of Monsters, coming in July from Tor.

Review: Letters for Lucardo

Iron Circus Comics has been steadily publishing a slew of critically-acclaimed anthologies and graphic novels primarily created by women that focus on queer themes. Among their titles are the collected print edition of the acclaimed webcomic The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal and the sex-positive “by women for everyone” erotica collection Smut Peddler. Their latest, Letters For Lucardo by writer and artist Noora Heikkila, was [successfully Kickstarted last fall and began shipping this spring. It tells the story of an interracial, inter-generational queer Vampire/Human couple, and does so with the tenderness its subjects deserve.

I’ll be the first to admit that vampires are not what drew me to backing this Kickstarter. While it isn’t a subgenre I read regularly, it didn’t deter me either. I didn’t realize there were vampires in it at all until after the book arrived. Though the vampire mythos is impossible to miss once you start reading, the word vampire (to my knowledge) is never spoken. Instead, what we get is a fully realized world in its own right, distinct from the well-known genre tropes. The religion centered around the Silent Lord and ruled by the Night Court is as creepy as it is fascinating. What really drives the plot, however, are the two central characters Ed and Lucardo.

Ed is a 61-year-old scribe working for the Night Court, of which Lucardo is a member. Lucardo hails from a powerful family of ageless aristocrats, and develops strong feelings for Ed in spite of his family’s misgivings. While this is erotica, and the sexual tension is present right from the first scene, the story takes its time to build up to the sex scenes. Each one is approached with a mix of tenderness and raw primal force that is often brought out by love and mutual attraction. It’s through these scenes that we see both characters at their most vulnerable. They help set the tone for dramatic turns outside of the bedroom, making them all the more resonant and powerful.

At its core, this is a story about loving someone in spite of societal boundaries. While the world that Ed and Lucardo live in is not a direct parallel to ours, they experience many struggles resembling those interracial queer couples face. Lucardo’s place on the Night Court grants him a life of privilege unlike anything that Ed has ever known. He starts out largely oblivious to Ed’s struggles, only to realize through the cruel pranks of his siblings and disrespect paid by his father, just how powerful those societal pressures can be. Without dropping any spoilers, it is these very pressures that come to a head and leave the reader eagerly anticipating Book 2.

The physical copy of the book is available now for pre-order, and digital copy can be purchased now from the Iron Circus Store. You can also check out a 10-page preview on the Iron Circus Tumblr.”