Making an Action-Adventure Book into a Literary Novel

I didn’t want to just write an action-adventure novel.

I like them. Don’t get me wrong. A taut James Bond thriller or an epic swords-and-sorcery book is fun to read.

But I wanted something more.

I blame Bob Boyer and Ken Zahorski for this. These two professors — a Chaucer scholar and a Shakespeare expert respectively — taught an excellent class on science fiction and fantasy literature at my alma mater, St. Norbert College. They taught me that the best speculative and fantastic books were actually literary novels that just happened to be set on other worlds or in other times.

Thus, The Hobbit is less about slaying a dragon and taking his gold than it is about going out into the world and self-actualizing, i.e., growing up. Brave New World wonders if there is a place for the individual in a society that stresses conformity.

And, because these novels are set in worlds not our own, we’re able to gain the distance and perspective to ask these big questions and learn some lessons. Suddenly, an action-adventure novel becomes a fable, a parable.

So last year, I introduced the world to Wolf Dasher. He’s clearly a James Bond figure — a man whose job it is to defeat megalomaniacal villains and get a few girls along the way. But Boyer and Zahorski’s tutelage wasn’t going to let me leave it at that. Wolf’s first adventure, State of Grace, sent him overseas to a nation that bears a strong resemblance to the Middle East. Through the action, I raised questions about what it means to be a patriot and about the role of religion in society.

Now Wolf is back in his second adventure, Red Dragon Five, which releases Tuesday, 20 November. Once again, I can’t stay away from disguising a literary novel as an action thriller.

This time, a top-secret weapons project is sabotaged. Only Wolf realizes that the sinister terrorist organization, the Sons of Frey, is behind it. To do something about it, he’ll have to go behind enemy lines to fundamentalist state Jifan. His mission is unofficial. If anything goes wrong, he’ll be disavowed.

But Wolf has fallen in love with May Honeyflower, Captain of Alfar’s Elite Guard and his ally from State of Grace. When he vanishes in Jifan, she abandons her post and goes in search of him. She’ll have to find him before the Sons of Frey do, and the two of them will have to stop the terrorists from unleashing an apocalypse on Alfar.

But that two-paragraph summary only describes the plot. It’s not what the book is about.

Red Dragon Five is a story of love and family. Wolf was disowned at the age of 15 when his magical Shadow powers manifested. He has never been in a real, romantic relationship before. As sincere as his feelings are, he doesn’t know how to act. Over the course of the novel, he learns what it means to love someone, to be part of a family, and to care for others. And he learns some of these lessons the hard way — by betraying his allies and even May. He does stupid things, because he just doesn’t know any better.

And May loves him desperately. She risks everything to be with this strange man from another country — her reputation, her career, and even her life. She teaches him what it means to love and be loved, and she makes a deal a criminal to rescue him.

In between, I also take some to comment on politics. Alfar is run by a shaky coalition of progressives and conservatives. They argue incessantly and accomplish little. When a new domestic threat rises in the form of a popular, progressive priest agitating for revolution, they cannot agree on how to deal with her until disaster occurs.

Red Dragon Five is an action-packed page-turner that reads quickly. But don’t go too fast. Thanks to Drs. Boyer and Zahorski, there’s a lot more going on you won’t want to miss.

Red Dragon Five releases Tuesday, 20 November 2012. It will be available via for Kindle and in print everywhere.


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