Searching for Dragons

by Patricia C. Wrede
ages 9+
First sentence: “The King of the Enchanted Forest was twenty years old and lived in a rambling, scrambling, mixed-up castle somewhere near the center of his domain.”
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Others in the series: Dealing with Dragons

The King of the Enchanted Forest, Mendenbar, doesn’t really appreciate messes. (Especially ones made by wizards.) So, when he finds a patch of his forest dead — completely void of magic and life — he’s not only annoyed, but also a bit curious. How on earth did that happen? Especially since there’s dragon scales lying around the area. That sends him off to see the King of the Dragons, Kazul, but only finds her princess, Cimorene, setting off to find Kazul, who has been missing for several days.

From there, Mendenbar and Cimorene set off on an adventure to find Kazul (and stop those pesky wizards), that will take them all over the Mountains of Morning, meeting giants, dwarves, and a theoretical magician before they will figure it all out (and rescue Kazul) in the end.

I remember listening to this one on audio years and years ago (I didn’t write a review), and I remember thoroughly enjoying it then. That hasn’t changed. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it aloud to A. Mendenbar and Cimorene are such engaging, fun, witty characters, and Wrede does a fantastic job weaving in fairy tales throughout her original story. It was a lot of fun to read for both A and me.

On to the next book!

Reread: Dealing with Dragons

by Patricia C. Wrede
ages: 9+
First sentence: “Linderwall was a large kindgom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable.”
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I didn’t really give much of a review when I read this one seven (!) years ago, so I thought I’d do it up proper this time. Especially since I just finished reading it aloud to my current 8-year-old, A.

Princes Cimorene doesn’t like being a princess. She would much rather learn magic, Latin, fencing or *something* other than being proper and embroidery. So, when her parents drag her to a nearby kingdom in order to marry her off to an insipid prince, she does the only reasonable thing: she runs away and becomes a dragon’s princess. The dragon is Kazul, and she (the dragon is a she) is smart, reasonable, interesting, and makes Cimorene feel useful. So, aside from the stupid knights who keep trying to rescue her, Cimorene is perfectly happy in her new life. Then she gets wind of a plot the wizards are cooking: after the death of the king, they’re going to rig the trials in order to get Waroug, who happens to be sympathetic to the wizards, in as king. And it’s up to Cimorene (and her new friends) to stop them.

I do love these little books. Sure, they’re light and frothy fantasy, but they’re fun. And Cimorene is one of the great heroines out there: a strong, smart girl, who knows what she wants and is willing to work for it, is kind without being a pushover.  The books are funny, too: I was constantly cracking up while I read. Lest you think it goes over an 8-year-old’s head, some of it did, but I was always able to stop and catch her up. She adored Cimorene as much as I did, and is quite excited to see what adventure they go on next. And since I never did get around to reading the rest of the series, I am as well.

Babymouse: Dragonslayer

by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm
ages: 8+
First sentence… oops… didn’t write it down (you’ll see why in a minute)
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Today, I took M across town to Barnes and Noble so she could spend a giftcard she got for her birthday. And while she was killing time figuring out which book to get (or how many), I searched out the newest Babymouse. Figured I could read it by the time M finished her shopping… (Cut me some slack, I didn’t buy the book, so this is totally from memory.)

Say it with me, people: Babymouse totally rocks!

Babymouse’s challenge this time: math.

She flunks a math test, and as retribution (or, rather, extra credit), she is forced to join the mathletes and participate in the upcoming Math Olympics in order to win the Golden Slide Rule. Can she do it? (Of course she can!)

There is so much to like about this one, like the other; from all the fantasy novel references — my favorite: Another Long Book About an Orphan Who Defeats the Dark Side (book one of twelve) — to the math references; to the silly bat (who “talks” upside down) and the total math geek teasing (but they’re good at skateboarding!). And, of course, Babymouse is as winning, and the narrator as snarky as ever.

This one is probably more accessible than Babymouse: the Musical, if only because more people are aware of fantasy novels (I caught, Eragon, Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Lord of the Rings references…) than musicals. And, I have to admit, that while I laughed most at the LOTR (Fellowship of the Slide Rule) pages, this passage totally and completely killed me:

Teacher (who looks like a lion): “You’re late because your locker is a portal into another world where time runs at a different rate and a witch tried to turn you to stone?”
Babymouse: “How did you know?”
Teacher: “It happens to the best of us. Also, the fur coat was a dead giveaway.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Babymouse totally rocks.

Dragon Flight

I’m on a bit of a middle grade kick right now…

I actually stayed up a bit late last night finishing this one, partially because I could, but mostly because I was enjoying myself and I lost track of the time. A sequel to
Dragon Slippers, this essentially picks up a while after it left off. Since it’s been eight months since I read the first, I was a bit fuzzy on all the details, and I was actually hoping I could read this one okay as a stand-alone, and that I wouldn’t be missing too much if I didn’t re-read the first book.

Thankfully, George spins a good stand-alone tale, weaving in just enough details to remind me of the basic plot of the first book, without bogging the plot of this book down. It picks up basically where Slippers left off, with Creel as a fairly successful dressmaker and Prince Luka off to a neighboring land as ambassador. We find out that the dragons — Shardas and his mate, Velika — are alive but seriously wounded. Then Luka sends word that the neighboring country is planning on attacking Feraval… with hundreds of dragons. This shocks everyone, not least Creel, and she (with her trusty sidekick and friend, Marta) heads off to figure out what the big deal is. (This is not just because if she didn’t, the book wouldn’t work, but because Creel has been deemed a “dragon expert”.) From there, they discover deeper, more sinister plots, and work to not only save themsevles, but the dragons.

I think it works well as an action book, though I was a bit disappointed in the climactic battle scene. I remember liking the budding romance between Creel and Luka, and this, while lacking the intensity I usually like, built nicely upon their relationship and has a good (or perhaps it should be silly?) proposal. I’m sure there’s more that I could nitpick, but honestly, I’m tired and so I won’t.

In all, though, it was a fun way to spend an evening.

The Dragon’s Son

I picked this one up to round out Becky’s King Arthur Challenge, mostly because I felt bad that I didn’t finish the John Steinbeck book. I found it through a random search of the library’s catalog; I knew I wanted a young adult or middle grade book, but that was all. After a bit of looking, this one popped out at me. Sarah Thomson takes a new and interesting approach to the legend: not only does she go back to the earliest Welsh stories of Arthur, she tells the story from the point of view of the lesser-represented characters (Nimue, Morgan, Luned and Medraud/Mordred) rather than from the usual perspectives.

Essentially a collection of four short stories (everyone gets a few chapters to tell their tale), I was impressed not only with the stories themselves, but with the way they were used to propel the entire myth forward. Thomson manages to tell the entire Arthur story — from conception to death — in 181 pages, and while it wasn’t as in-depth as it could have been, I don’t feel like I missed anything.

The book begins with Nimue, and tells her story from her meeting Myrddin through their relationship to his death. It covers a huge amount of time, but her primary role is to tell about the conception and birth of Arthur. Morgan comes next, but her fundamental character has been changed: she’s not a witch or even a Lady of Avalon. Instead, she’s a bitter, slighted sister of Arthur. She saw her father’s murder by Uther, and she was never able to forgive Myrddin for that. So, when she married Arthur (interesting twist, I thought) and he took her to the castle, she left him because he wasn’t willing to get rid of Myrddin. The story then switches to Luned, who is the handmaid to Elen, Morgan’s sister. This one I found the most fascinating. It involves Lancelot, called Owain here, and how he came to marry Elen/Elaine. Thomson made Elen terrified of men, mostly because she was married off at 12 to a brute of a man. Luned is Elen’s voice, her strength, her solace. It’s only after Luned brokers a marriage to Owain for Elen’s saftey (after her former husband’s death), that Elen learns to love. Unfortunately, Owain’s heart belongs to another, and Elen pines away in a monestary. It moves the story forward, though, because Elen is given Gwydre, who is Arthur’s heir (another interesting twist; Morgan had twins) to raise. The last story is Medraud/Mordred. His is the most tragic, the most bitter. Growing up as the son of Morgan, he is not only influcenced by her mother’s wanton ridding of sons (she gives up Gwydre to Arthur without any complaints), but by Arthur’s neglect. He resolves to kill Arthur, not just because his mother is bitter and wants revenge, but also because Arthur is unwilling to recognize Medraud as his rightful heir. He wages a war of words, rumors against his own brother, and eventually after a confrontation with Arthur, leaves and comes back with an army. And we all know how that turns out.

I liked the changes to the traditional story that Thomson made– the basics were the same, but details were different. I found that interesting and, yes, refreshing. It was nice not to read the same story hashed out. Seeing the story from the minor characters point of view also made it more intersting. A lot of the other elements we usually associate with Arthur were done away with, too: magic, aside from Myrddin’s few prophecies, was essentially non-existant. As were most elements of Druid worship (there were some references to “old ways” but that was it).

I always feel good when I manage to find a book on my own that I like. So, I’m feeling pretty good today, because I liked this one. A lot.

Dragon Slippers

I’ve heard the buzz on this for a while (as with many of my books), though I’m not quite sure what made it go from the TBR list, to the active “I’ve put a hold and am just waiting for it” pile. It’s been a while in coming; there’s a lot of Jessica Day George fans out there, and I’ve had to wait my turn.

I’m glad I finally got to bring it home.

It’s a lovely cross between Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Chronicles series — spunky anti-heroine, who doesn’t need any rescuing and is more than willing to make friends with dragons, not to mention the plucky younger son of the king — and an Anne McCaffrey-like world creation. Dragons and humans are at odds, though not violent odds, due to a long-ago king using the dragons (against their will) to fight (and win) a war against a neighboring country. Throw in some Robin McKinley-esqe home-spun elegance (our anti-heroine, Creel, has a beautiful talent for embroidery), and you’ve pretty much got Dragon Slippers in a nutshell.

It’s not a deep or heavy book, though there are some tense moments, as well as a few ethical quandaries. Creel’s “enemies” were twits rather than malicious until near the end, so it was difficult to actually feel anything other than annoyance for them. Even when they betray Creel’s trusts. I think the reason I liked this book was for the world creation. I loved the dragons, their personalities (they don’t hoard gold — at least not all of them. They all have their individual “collections”), and the way they came to like and respect Creel. It wouldn’t have been enough to make a book work for me, though, if that’s all I liked. Creel was — like Cimorene in Enchanted Forest and Menolly in the Harper Hall triology — spunky enough and sympathetic enough to carry the book.

Which makes it a delightful way to spend an afternoon.

Empire of Ivory

So, I picked up this one — the latest in the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik — about a month ago at the library. Hubby scooped it up, excited, and dove in. Three and a half weeks later, he gave it back with the summation: “Lousy story, good ending.”

I needed something different to read after being in YA-land for Estella’s Revenge last week, and I picked this one up on Friday. I stopped on page 81, turned to Hubby and asked for a summary of events, so I could just skip to the ending. (The due date is looming, anyway.) Here’s what I missed (to save you 330 pages of reading):

When Laurence and Temeraire finally get back from their adventures to China and the continent, they find the English dragons in a terrible state. They are all wasting away from this mysterious disease. Sick and miserable, they can hardly defend the country. After a series of events, Temeraire and Laurence discover that the cure to this sickness is some rare mushroom only found in Africa. So, Laurence and Temeraire are sent to Cape Town to go into the depths of Africa to find more of the mushrooms. They get there, get captured by the elusive Empire of Ivory, where dragons are considered to be reincarnations of previous clan chiefs. Somehow (probably mildly interesting) they escape with the mushrooms and the Empire dragons hot on their tale. The Empire wrecks havoc on the colonial towns of Africa (I think it was because they thought Temeraire and Laurence were there to capture slaves), and somehow Laurence and Temeraire get back alive and in one piece.

So. Now you can start the book on page 330, Chapter 14, where things get interesting. Hubby did say that there was an interesting sub-plot with Harcourt (she’s a female dragon rider from the first book) getting pregnant by Laurence’s Navy friend Riley. But that’s only if you want to slog through the middle chapters.

But, the ending — which I did read — was exciting. Laurence comes back to find that the Admiralty sent an infected dragon to France to wipe out their dragons. Laurence and Temeraire are sickened at this, and commit treason by stealing the mushrooms and delivering them to France. There’s a great escape scene, and what happens to Laurence at the end is very interesting.

Which makes me think about Novik as a writer. She doesn’t do the whole adventure to other lands thing very well. I understand it’s interesting exploring other dragon cultures — the whole idea that different cultures would treat their dragons differently is a compelling one — but she just doesn’t do it all that well. The books are best when she’s writing about the war — the fighting, the flying, the escapes — and Temeraire and Laurence’s part in it. Dragon culture and emancipation is all fine, but give me a good fight scene. It’s really all I want out of these books.

Dragon’s Keep

I’m not sure what to say about this book, by Janet Lee Carey. For the record, M really really liked it. She was drawn to it because of the cover (Even A, who’s not quite 4 was drawn to the book because of the cover. I don’t blame her; it’s beautiful.) and she devoured it. Raved about it; said it was one of the best books she’s read.

And the story is truly original; a mix between historical and fantasy, tapping into not only 12th-century English history, but Arthurian legend. Princess Rosalind Pendragon is preparing to be the 21st queen of Wilde Island, and she’s got a prophecy (by Merlin!) to live up to. Ending war, reclaiming her family’s good name, and restoring Wilde Island to better days. A lot to live up to. Unfortunately, she’s got a slight problem: her ring finger on her left hand is a dragon’s claw. It’s a secret she and her mother have kept from everyone since Princess Roslind’s birth. It’s also the key to unlocking Rosalind’s fate. It has dragons, romance, mystery, murder, adventure, and a happy ending. What more could we want?

Well… something. I don’t know what. I finished the book last night and… nothing. I enjoyed aspects of the book — Rosalind is one of those great heroines, and I liked her friend Kit — but there just wasn’t enough for me. The romance was too fleeting. The evil bad guy lurked until the ending and then his big moment wasn’t enough. The ethical questions too subtle. Even Rosalind’s relationship with her mother didn’t do anything for me. The deaths and murders too numerous The only relationship I really liked was between Rosalind and Lord Faul, the dragon. But, in the end, that was too fleeting for me. I think what I really wanted out of this book was more. More of everything. More romance. More dragon. More detail of Rosalind’s mother. More of the evil bad guy. More pathos before the climatic conclusion. I could have read at least another 200 pages of this book (it was only 320 pages) and it still might not have been enough.

I guess what I’m saying is that, in this case, I felt like it was an adult story, and I wanted an adult book. Instead I got a (albeit good) young adult story. And this left me very unsatisfied.

Throne of Jade

So, I admit that back in January I was so taken with the idea of His Majesty’s Dragon, that I didn’t bother telling y’all about the book at all. The reason being: there really isn’t that much to tell. Man (Laurence) gets dragon (Temeraire) and learns to love said dragon, fighting in conflicts with him. It was a world- and idea-driven book.

Which tends not to be enough to warrant another book. I found with Throne of Jade, that the world had lost it’s novelty and that the story left behind wasn’t quite enough for me. Not that I abandoned the book. Novack kept me turning pages for one reason: I wanted to know how on earth Laurence and Temeraire managed to stay together. For the basic premise of this book is that the Chinese government is highly offended that Temeraire (who is a Chinese Celestial, and is only supposed to be reserved for royalty) is being used as a pack animal, and in a war to boot. So, they are demanding that Temeraire be returned to China.

And what ensues is pretty typical. There’s a Bad Guy, whom you are supposed to suspect. And the Good Guy (Laurence) is supposed to over come all (assassination attempts, jealousy of Temeraire, uncertainty, boredom), and he does. There’s an Annoying Diplomat, who manages to get his way in the end, even though he’s not interesting at all, but rather a great big prick. There’s the Good Bad Guy, a Chinese noble who ends up being on Laurence’s side, but I, at least, saw it coming.

Enough complaints. You do have to read this one, though, because it focuses on Novak’s higher arc: revolution for the English dragons. Temeraire has to go to China, if only to see how dragons in China are treated.

And Hubby assures me that Black Powder War is much better.

His Majesty’s Dragon

So, I’m imagining the conversation went something like this:

“You know, I really love the Patrick O’Brian books. Naval battles, Napoleon. You know?”
“Mmmm hmmm.”
“And Jane Austen; she’s fabulous. The whole 19th century English society. I love it.”
“Yes, dear.”
“But you know what they’re missing?”
“Yeah…. dragons.”

So we have His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik: Patrick O’Brian, Jane Austen and Anne McCaffrey rolled into one.

The conversation at our house:
Hubby: “Hey, you got that book!”
Me: “What book?”
Hubby: “The Napoleonic wars with dragons book.”
Me: “Oh, yeah. I needed a science fiction book for the library’s reading challenge.”
Hubby: “Did you know that Peter Jackson‘s optioned it?”
Me: “Oh, really?”
Hubby: “Yeah. Can I read it first?”

The verdict: If you’re looking for something fun and light and engaging that has both elements of English manners books, Napoleonic wars and dragons, then this is for you.

(And as an aside: I really enjoyed myself and I’ve got the other two books in the series on hold…)