What attracted me to the fantasy Dragon Scale Lute by J.C. Kang was the word "lute". I was drawn to the musical aspect of the novel. I was also interested in the fact that the book takes place in an alternate version of China. I hoped that the dragon would be a Chinese dragon rather than a Western dragon. He turned out to be more like a Western dragon, but it didn't matter. To my great relief, the dragon pretty much stays in the background. I don't want to read about giant fire breathing lizards that fly. I'd much rather read about people. I got my wish. I received a free copy from the author in return for this review.
Based on the cover you'd think this was a romance. The female character is carrying a musical instrument, but she looks insipid and is dressed in faded pastels which implies timidity. From this image, I got the impression that she's a decorative frail maiden with no real personality who swoons a great deal.
I'm delighted to say that the protagonist, Princess Kaiya, is anything but timid. She's unpredictable, bold, incredibly stubborn and a very talented singer/musician. Unfortunately, she does swoon and she does it often but it doesn't happen for the reason that you'd expect based on that cover- i.e. an attention getting strategy calculated to draw the sympathy of the romantic hero. No, the swooning has to do with her music which has power that no one ever expected.
There is a romantic hero and a strong romantic element, but anyone who thinks that this is a romance is likely to be disappointed. The handsome prince is from alternate India, and he's got the invasion of his country on his mind. There's a connection between him and Princess Kaiya, but he has other priorities and readers would think that she's a bit young at fourteen for a committed relationship. On the other hand, Shakespeare's Juliet was that age and just as extreme in her behavior and emotions as Princess Kaiya. Shakespeare lived in an environment where fourteen year old girls got married to much older men. That happens to Chinese Princesses too. Her father is the Emperor of alternate China, and his plan is to use Kaiya to forge a political alliance with an important man. The hero may be a prince, but he and alternate India apparently aren't important when you're thinking on an imperial scale. The Emperor cares about his daughter, but he isn't about to throw away the political capital that she represents.
There is an alternate character viewpoint of a female spy who is clever and has terrific martial arts abilities. I tend to like this type of character, but her personality seems bland compared to Kaiya's. I was only interested in her when she became much more pivotal to the plot toward the end of the book. And still, Kaiya takes the limelight at that point by being incredibly daring, but also incredibly foolish. This is not the first time that the Princess made a foolish decision. If she were older with more life experience, I would call Kaiya TSTL (Too Stupid To Live). But she's a teenager and can't be expected to have mature judgment.
I tolerated Kaiya's escapades because I was interested in her music and her attempts to use it to have a strong impact on people. It's called magic, but it's essentially a paranormal ability called projective empathy. She is able to project her emotions through her music so that those who hear it are emotionally affected. She has no control over when this ability will manifest or how long she can affect people.
Perhaps she'll eventually get more control over her gift with the help of an elf lord. Elf lords in China? Well that's one of the reasons why it's obviously an alternate China. J.C. Kang mashes up Eastern and Western folklore in Dragon Scale Lute. Perhaps this inclination to mix cultures is due to his being an Asian American writer who has led a multi-cultural life.
I enjoyed reading this book. It was quite suspenseful because I never knew how Princess Kaiya would survive her latest adventure, or whether her projective empathy would play a role in her survival. Dragon Scale Lute may not be the best fantasy of the year, but it was a good read.
Update 2/29/16: I was reviewing an ARC. J.C. Kang has informed me that he changed Kaiya's age to sixteen as a result of feedback on the ARC.