Last week, I had an interesting experience I had missed out on for a while. I stayed up past my bedtime to finish a book.
The book was Touched by Venom by Janine Cross, and it was the first of a trilogy titled The Dragon Temple Saga. I picked the entire trilogy up at a yard sale on the same day as one of my baby showers. I remember being heavily pregnant and squatting down to look at piles of books laid out on a blanket in someone’s yard was no easy task, but I was lured by the sight of dragons and a woman on the covers. In case we aren’t friends on Facebook, I am very much into dragons at this point in my life, which may or may not be the result of a very popular HBO show. I’m enchanted by dragons, and Touched by Venom promised a different take, where dragons are not only revered, but they produce a highly addictive venom.
I will just say that this book, while accurate to the blurb on the back cover, was not what I expected. For the first half of the book, the dragons were largely in the background and not a major part of the story. Naturally, they’re a huge part of the culture and traditions in Cross’s universe, but they weren’t the center of the story to begin with. What was the center of the story from the start, however, was a spiral into deep poverty and a mother’s guilt and a daughter’s desire to have her mother’s affection and approval.
This is not a sunshine and roses book. There are some very dark themes in this novel that took me by surprise and I think, had I been ten years younger, I might not have finished this book because of these elements. As it was, I was very into Cross’s crafted detailing of the world and the events that our main character faced. I committed a massively stupid act when I looked at the reviews for this book on Goodreads and one of the biggest criticisms seemed to be that the main character just let this happen to her, that she was very passive. Well, she was nothing but a child for the majority of this first book. Many of these circumstances were beyond her control but in this day and age of Harry Potter and child heroes that save the world and defeat the big baddy all without any parental supervision and guidance whatsoever, it’s really not so surprising that people held this against her. I didn’t. Nor did I blame her for how she reacted in certain situations or the choices she made, even the icky ones.
One thing that I saw in the reviews that really irked me was the comment that strong women wouldn’t let these things happen to them, no matter what. No matter the time or place. No matter the circumstances of poverty and abuse. I think that’s incredibly indicative of a privileged life and naivety when you think we can always stop the bad things that happen to us, and that if we don’t, it’s a sign of weakness.
Another thing that really hit me hard about this book was the mother daughter relationship. As a new mom myself, I am imagining if it were me in that situation, being forced to make these decisions. It hurts my heart to see the main character so psychologically damaged because of her mother’s obsession with getting her sister back, and that deep seeded desire for her mother’s approval and affection despite all the wrong she’s done. That part felt so authentic. I can’t imagine the guilt of knowing what happened to my oldest daughter and making decisions to try to get her back, even if those decisions are harming my youngest child. That’s just a hard situation for all involved.
This is a high fantasy novel that revolves around some very real themes of family relationships, poverty, and a cycle of addiction. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you can stomach it, it’s worth the read. To me, it almost had a Conan the Barbarian feeling at times, it was truly barbaric in places. I really liked this book and I cannot wait to continue the trilogy, but I can’t help feeling I need a palette cleanser before I go on to book two, it was that dark.