You may remember that, back in September, I discovered Beauty by Robin McKinley, just sitting on a used bookstore shelf and picked it up, no questions asked. Ever since then, I’ve kept my eyes peeled for more Robin McKinley books in the wild, but for some reason they just haven’t shown up. Until now, of course. I managed to find one at the con last weekend. But not at the couple booths selling used books, oh no. This was at the booth with the brand new books (the only one, RIP Larry Smith).
The book is Dragonhaven, published in 2007, and it’s a very different take on dragons than I’ve seen in a long time. It takes place in our own modern time but, of course, in this world there are real dragons. There’s also a lot of not-real dragons, large lizards that people call dragons but are really not at all dragons, whether by lack of flying or fire-breathing or who knows what. There’s a lot of technical things in the book relating to that.
And yet, this book is mostly written as stream of consciousness by the main character. It does make things a bit difficult to read, especially as there aren’t nearly as many breaks as in a more standard narrative, but not too bad. Especially since I’m sure this falls into the young adult category, and not just because the main character is not-quite-fifteen when everything starts happening.
In the world of Dragonhaven, Jake Mendoza lives at Smokehill, a national park and zoo. The zoo consists of those not-dragons mentioned earlier, the real dragons having been let out in some crazy incident long ago and gone to ground in the park’s massive area. There is a fence of some kind around the entire perimeter that keeps both dragons in and excessive people out. Obviously there’s a gate, and they clearly let people in to gawk at the zoo, but it’s no easy thing to just “get in.”
Which doesn’t explain how the poacher got in. Yes, the story truly starts when Jake sees a real life dragon for the first time…and it’s dying. At least it already killed the poacher. Dragons are an endangered species after all, and they’re only alive in national parks and reserves like Smokehill – though no one really knows how many there are or aren’t.
Overall, this was a rather fascinating read. As I said, it’s quite unlike most of the other dragon books I’ve read, though there are certain tropes (not all pertaining to dragons) that are sprinkled throughout. The only thing some readers might find problematic is the stream of consciousness writing style, especially when Jake meanders off on some tangent.
THIS SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
So, the biggest trope Dragonhaven falls into is “a boy and his __.” What else would you expect when the dying dragon is a new mother and only one of her offspring has survived? Obviously it’s up to Jake to raise the creature and you can forgive the narrative for being a bit oddly-focused when you take that into account.
It’s brought up a couple times that dragons might be *gasp* intelligent. Before it turns out that yes, they are indeed intelligent and sort of telepathic. And before you start screaming about how that’s been done before, relax. Jake himself mentions having a shelf of fantasy books with that very idea. We all know which famous series he’s referring to that may or may not be Dragonriders of Pern.
The interesting part of this telepathy is that McKinley really gets into questioning our preconceptions. In most books, telepathy is speaking mind to mind with words. But the dragons here don’t have words we can easily recognize. And while you can use pictures, it’s not quite enough detail for an unspoken language that also includes distance and texture and other information in a single “word.” It’s no wonder that Jake refers to dragon communication as the Headache.
Near the end is, of course, the inevitable point when Jake must let Lois go back to the dragons, without him. (Yes, he names the dragon Lois. He likes the name.) But it’s not her death, and it’s not the end of their relationship, merely the end of her dependency on him. Instead, it’s part of the dawn of a grand new era of communication between the two species, now going into a second generation. It’s always a nice, positive note when books end with births. Not that ending on deaths isn’t meaningful as well, but that’s not always a positive thing.
OKAY, END OF SPOILERS.
I probably could have finished Dragonhaven if I’d stayed up late last night (and then later writing this post), but as I’m still running a sleep deficit from the con, I opted to be good and go to bed. Combine that with my next choice being on the short side and it’s no surprise that there’s two books in this post.
I’ve mentioned having some authors as friends, and there is no point to these words if I haven’t read their books. So I’d like to introduce you all to the work of Lauren Jankowski, a feminist aromantic asexual author whom I had the good fortune to meet at a con much like the one last weekend. You can check out her website here for more information on that. She’s also the mastermind behind Asexual Artists, a blog that has featured more than 500 ace artists in so many different fields as a way to raise asexual visibility. (Yes, I’m on there too.)
Her Shape Shifter Chronicles recently released its fifth installment, and I’ve just reread the first book as part of getting to it. My first response upon rereading Sere from the Green…I am so glad she’s reworking this book. I’ve touched upon this before, when I was discussing Michelle Sagara West’s Into the Dark Lands and how that author chose not to change her first book for its reprint. I remember back when I first read Sere from the Green I didn’t want to write a review because I’d be compelled to honesty and I didn’t want to hurt my friend’s feelings. So instead I complained about page 183 and the orphan word at the top of the page. Self-publishing at its worst.
There are so very many points of “first book syndrome” in this one. Lauren told me that one of the changes will be the addition of a lot of the description we’re currently lacking in. Really, I think she’s finding it theraputic to purge a lot of the issues that were going on behind the scenes while she was writing, and more power to her. Some of the aspects I hope she takes note of include: properly spelled typos (wrong words), sentences that are missing a necessary word, switching viewpoint characters without a break, and generally adding a few more slow scenes to give the reader a break from running around action scene to action scene.
Also there are a number of oddly constructed sentences that strike me as the author trying to show off her vocabulary or trying to write different types of sentences. While it’s important not to repeat yourself, if you end one chapter with the heroine escaping in a mini cooper, the next chapter should probably start with “The mini cooper” instead of “A mini cooper” because there’s only been one mentioned. It’s the sort of thing that reeks of trying too hard to be an Artiste. I remember in school they always wanted us to avoid the word “said” in our writing. Now, it’s true that a skilled writer will have multiple words in their repertoire which are far more descriptive than “said.” But it’s also true that probably one third to one half of your speech denotations will be “said” because you don’t NEED to use those fancy descriptors all the time, because your readers will get tired of it, and because your readers can speedread “said” more easily than all those other terms.
As for the story itself, Sere from the Green is an origin story, the start of a hero’s journey, a Chosen One story, and more. Lauren’s creation of the Meadows, the guardians, and the shape-shifters is an interesting amalgmation of commonly-known mythology and legend into something new an different. I personally read it as fantasy, but I think these books might be more properly classed as thrillers, given what I remember.
Of course, from what I recall, the first book is just a gradual incline. It’s the second book that starts dropping real bombs.