Goodreads: The Drowned Vault
Series: Ashtown Burials #2
A year ago Cyrus Smith lost the Dragon’s Tooth to the ruthless Dr. Phoenix–a man who dreams of resurrecting the dead and redefining what it means to be human. The tooth, however, while it can be used to raise the dead, is also the one thing that can kill the transmortals–men and women who would otherwise live forever. Now the transmortals, led by Gilgamesh of Uruk, are at the doors of Ashtown demanding the deaths of Cyrus and his sister Antigone, and the severing of the ancient treaties that keep their powers in check. With two enemies without and traitors within, the Smiths and their Keeper may have only one chance of staying alive–an alliance with one of the Order’s most notorious prisoners.
The Drowned Vault brings a new maturity to the Ashtown Burials series. The first book necessarily bore the weight of having to introduce readers to a new world full of new characters and new rules. Cyrus and Antigone were new, too, and though Dr. Phoenix and his monsters threatened the Order of Brendan, no one expected them to help; their job then was to pass their training and gain acceptance in the Order. Now, however, the pieces on the board have been set and the young Smiths, as full members of the O of B, have taken their place among them. They have entered an adult world and no one can shelter them from the dangers that await.
The Drowned Vault is a middle-grade book, but N. D. Wilson never uses that as an excuse to gloss over the darkness that exists in the world. The villains in this story will not stay their hands because they deal with children and they cannot be defeated by any cutesy high jinks or even by any roundabout methods that will allow the protagonists to feel some sort of mental distance from their actions. The characters engage in real, bloody battles with full knowledge that they are responsible for any attacks they make, any lives they take. The Smiths also increasingly come to realize that to triumph over darkness, they will be required to make sacrifices. Their own start out comparatively small–torn feet, bullet wounds, the costs of war that other books sometimes ignore. As they progress, however, they see the kinds of sacrifices others have made to stem the tide of evil, sacrifices that did not merely leave physical scars, but also emotional, mental, and spiritual ones. They also come to learn that even when facing obvious evil, there may be no right course to choose when combating it.
All this leads up to a finale in which the Smiths must face their own greatest sacrifice. This time at least they have no doubt about the right choice, but that does not make the choice easy and that does not mean they will choose it. Their family is at stake and there is perhaps nothing on earth more important to the Smiths than their family. The crisis comes at a moment of intense confusion–readers want action at the end of a book, right?– but Wilson inserts into the chaos a quiet image of everything the Smiths have to gain and everything they have to lose: a black hand on top of a white hand. In that image, the shared humanity of the characters comes together–all their love and hopes and dreams– contrasting with the warped sense of humanity envisioned by Dr. Phoenix. It is a moment of rare depth, at least for children’s books.
The Ashtown Burials series has continued to surprise me with its moving depictions of love, loss, and sacrifice. Other books talk about the power of love or about the importance of doing the right thing, but few so powerfully illustrate just what either of those things means. In this world, love is not simply fuzzy feelings and doing the right thing will not result in a gold star or public recognition. In this world, both love and doing right are a conscious choice to give of one’s self and to accept the bad with the good, whether or not anyone knows or cares. The Drowned Vault may be set in a world where Greek legends walk the streets and dragons are rumored to exist, but it feels more real than many a contemporary novel.
Goodreads: How to Train Your Dragon
Series: How to Train Your Dragon #1
Summary: Everyone in the Viking village of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III expects him to be a Hero–he is, after all, the son of the chief. Hiccup, however, has lower expectations. All he wants is to pass his initiation test, which requires him to catch and train a dragon, or else suffer exile. Unfortunately, the dragon he catches proves to have a bit of an attitude.
Review: Fans of the film How to Train Your Dragon should expect a far different experience from the book. Characters share the same names, but otherwise the two stories bear little resemblance to each other, as a quick look at the summary reveals. In the book, Hiccup’s Viking village accepts dragons as pets they must capture and train; the drama results, not from Hiccup’s secret friendship with one of the beasts, but from his desperate attempts to train his dragon (named Toothless as a result of his less than fearsome appearance) before his village casts him out to die in the wilderness. Toothless, it turns out, can communicate with Hiccup by speaking Dragonese–he simply chooses not to obey any of Hiccup’s orders.
The attitude exhibited by Toothless is but one attempt of many for the book to appeal to some sort of middle-grade humor. The characters all have ridiculous names such as Dogbreath and Snotlout, they delight in calling each other names and pounding one another into the ground, and they perform feats such as stealing underwear. Those who do not enjoy toilet humor may, in fact, find the tone of the book rather off-putting. The whimsy and magic of the film are completely absent.
Another noticeable absence is that of any female characters. Hiccup’s mother is technically present in about two scenes, but otherwise the author makes no mention of women. This raises a rather obvious question: where are they? Do rules prevent them from training dragons and serving as warriors? Do they provide other useful services to the village? Exploring gender roles within the context of this fictional society might have proven interesting, but I have no idea what to do with the seeming nonexistence of females within Hiccup’s world.
Admittedly, I liked that the absence of Astrid (the sole girl training to be a dragon warrior in the film) allowed Hiccup to focus on friendship rather than on romance. Hiccup’s character arc bears similarities with that of Harry Potter, who starts out as a bit of a social outcast, but eventually earns the respect of those around him. While Harry gains popularity from his rule-breaking escapades, however, Hiccup gains it from demonstrating the usefulness of traits those around him previously considered inferior. Thus, intelligence, learning, patience, and thoughtfulness are held up as admirable qualities as opposed to brute force.
How to Train Your Dragon whiled away an afternoon for me, but I doubt I will continue with the series. I do not share the sense of humor on which the book relies and I could not really connect with any of the characters. Variously mean, rude, thoughtless, and proud of their cultivated ignorance, none of the characters has any real appeal. Even Toothless, whom I assume is meant to be cute, has too much of an attitude for me to want to spend a lot of time with him. If I want more dragons, I’ll go back to the film.
Official Summary: On Wilde Island, there is no peace between dragons, fairies, and humans.
Wilde Island is in an uproar over the recent death of its king. As the uneasy pact between dragons, fairies, and humans begins to fray, the royal witch hunter with a hidden agenda begins a vengeful quest to burn girls suspected of witchcraft before a new king is crowned.
Strong-willed Tess, a blacksmith’s daughter from a tiny hamlet, wants more for herself than a husband and a house to keep. But in times like these wanting more can be dangerous. Accused of witchery, Tess and her two friends are forced to flee the violent witch hunter. As their pursuer draws ever closer they find shelter with a huntsman in the outskirts of the forbidden Dragonswood sanctuary. But staying with the mysterious huntsman poses risks of its own: Tess does not know how to handle the attraction she feels for him—or resist the elusive call that draws her deeper onto the heart of Dragonswood.
Review: Dragonswood is a strongly crafted novel that will appeal to fantasy fans who love a good classic quest and imaginative worlds populated with magical species. Carey deftly creates three distinct races in Dragonswood—humans, fairies, and dragons—giving each a rich history and defining characteristics. Then, just as quickly, she demonstrates all are ultimately people with similar hearts, if different perspectives.
Carey’s world is in fact a mix of the real and the fantastic. It is set on an island close to England, where the descendants of King Arthur reign and have built one of the world’s final refuges for the disappearing dragon and fairy races. This setting is unclear at first, making the frequent references to the Christian God and saints bewildering when mixed so casually with talk of magic, but eventually enough clues are dropped that the reader can settle comfortably into this uniquely imagined world.
Tess is an intriguing protagonist, a mix of strength and vulnerability. She has a brave and loyal heart, yet has suffered years of abuse from her father. She distrusts men. Sometimes she stands tall, and sometimes she flees. Her reactions, however, are altogether human and a lot of readers will be able to relate. She teaches her audience what it means to be brave in the face of fear.
The dialogue is a bit awkward, the standard attempt at “fantasy” speech where people refuse to use contractions and often employ the present tense. At times, the dialogue contributes to demonstrating Tess’s fear, as she sounds inordinately subservient. This is somewhat logical, due to the characterization mentioned above, but there are places where it truly seems unintentional—the dialogue makes her sound more awkward in a given situation than the author might want her to.
The pace is generally pleasant. Carey weaves action, description, romance, and exploration beautifully together to craft a tale that truly has it all. The climactic scene would have benefited from being a little longer, as some characters really should have been more hesitant to believe the incredible and not simply accepted everything that was told to them. Nothing more was out of place, however.
Overall, a fantastic read I recommend to fans of the genre.
Published: January 5, 2012
Goodreads: Dragon Slippers
Series: Dragon Slippers #1
Summary: Raised by her aunt and uncle, Creel has proved only a burden to her struggling relatives. Her aunt accordingly hatches a plan to sacrifice the girl to the local dragon, in hopes that a rich knight will rescue Creel and bestow wealth upon the entire family. Creel, however, has no such plans. After rescuing herself from the clutches of the dragon and gaining a pair of comfortable slippers in the process, she strikes out for the capital with only some embroidery yarn in her pocket. There she hopes to find work as a seamstress—and perhaps, one day, to open her own shop. War threatens the country, however, and it just may be a peasant girl with an unusual pair of slippers who can save it.
Review: George cleverly takes some common fairy tale elements and turns them upside down, creating in the process a story as amusing as it is engaging. Led by its strong heroine, Dragon Slippers takes the readers on a magical journey that explores the power of the friendship and the discovery of self. Readers will cheer Creel on as she strikes out by herself, learning that the world is not always kind, but still believing in its ultimate goodness.
Creel proves herself a worthy modern-day heroine, capturing the sympathy of her audience from the moment she declines to wait around for a random knight to save her and takes charge of her own destiny. She freely acknowledges the awful comedy of her situation—the unlikelihood that a knight will bother to rescue a poor girl, the possibility that she might not even like the knight—then continues forward, determined to make a life herself with the scant means she possesses. Despite the daunting obstacles placed in her path and a propensity for getting into trouble, Creel perseveres, learning valuable lessons about friendship, love, and life. Her combination of spunk and cheerful good humor, along with a comical inability to see things right in front of her, proves irresistible. Creel seems like a friend, and readers will find themselves desperately wanting her to succeed.
A diverse cast of characters joins Creel, making the story come alive with all the types of personalities readers might expect to find in the real world. Not everyone is who they appear to be, and kindness and dishonesty, pride and generosity, shallowness and cunning meet together in the most unlikely of places. The failure of the majority of the characters to fit into any particular mold as “good” or “evil,” even when they clearly stand on one side or the other, gives the story a complexity that may not be at first apparent. Even so, this depth informs the story, making it seem both plausible and relevant despite the inclusion of a number of common fantasy elements.
Dragon Slippers enchants with its combination of likeable characters and fast-paced plot. Readers will surely desire to follow Creel and her friends in their subsequent adventures.
Series: Dragonbreath #1
Summary: Danny Dragonbreath is the only mythical creature in his school–and it is difficult for him to prove that he is is, in fact, a dragon since he cannot even breathe fire! A school assignment that leads to an undersea adventure with his friend Wendall, however, will prove that Danny can come through in dangerous situations.
Review: Dragonbreath is a clever read featuring a spunky and courageous protagonist. The book is a combination of “normal” book text interspersed with comic-like pages that tell parts of the story in ways that make them easier to digest and a lot funnier. Seeing the characters in silly situations with little exclamations of woe or disgust in their speech bubbles is highly amusing! This artistic approach also heightens the reader’s sense that Danny is a hero, even if he is still learning to breathe fire.
Danny is a really fun character to read about. He has an interesting sense of humor and an absolute conviction that the world is one big adventure waiting for him to find it. He never thinks he is a failure because he is a late-bloomer in the fire area or that there will be some danger too scary for him to face. His friend Wendall, an iguana, is the voice of logic in all his crazy imaginings. The two are a great pair.
Dragonbreath is quick, entertaining, and a little inspirational. It is a good book for those looking for a story told in a fresh way or who just want to go exploring the wonders and dangers of the ocean.
Summary: Rune washed up on the shores of the Geats as a baby and many have hated him ever since. They believe he was an offering to the gods and that, by saving his life, King Beowulf placed the kingdom in jeopardy. Now a young man, Rune struggles to fit into his society and to prove himself worthy to be a warrior. The awakening of a dragon gives him the perfect opportunity to show his mettle, but Rune fears he may fail his king in the hour of his need.
Review: The Coming of the Dragon intrigued me with its promise to elaborate on the story of Wiglaf, that enigmatical kinsman of Beowulf who shows up at the very end of the poem to play a pivotal role in the history of the Geats. The book sought to give a more human face to the events described by focusing on the people under Beowulf’s rule and by describing their everyday lives. I relished the opportunity to immerse myself more fully in the time period of the poem and to experience what it might have been like to live as a Geat, but, in the end, I think it may have been a mistake to write this book.
My first problem lies with the intended audience of the book. It is classified as middle grade and the age of the protagonist (Wiglaf here is only a boy on the cusp of manhood) as well as the language and writing style all bear this out. However, most people read Beowulf in high school. The intended audience is thus reading a book based on a poem they may know nothing about. Retellings should add a new dimension to a well-known tale, helping readers see the story in a new light or consider aspects they may have missed. The new dimensions give them their value. If readers have no familiarity with the original story, they may enjoy The Coming of the Dragon as a good adventure, but they are arguably missing out on the entire point of the book. Read the rest of this entry
Summary: The mysterious death of a professor draws together three strangers from Oxford, John, Jack, and Charles. Informed by a friend of the professor’s that they are now the Caretakers of an atlas of imaginary lands called the Imaginarium Geographic, the three set sail for the Archipelago of Dreams, where all the places of myth and literature exist. Chaos threatens the Archipelago, however, as the throne remains empty and a man called the Winter King covers the lands with shadow, turning the people into his slaves. To defeat the darkness, the Caretakers will have to battle not only legendary monsters, but also the monsters within themselves. The first in the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica.
Review: Owen’s story rests on a brilliant premise—that somewhere a world exists with all the lands and creatures and characters from myth and legend, and that men and women from our world have traveled there. Those who feel the need to describe their adventures do so by disguising their experiences in literature. This concept allows Owen to bring together the best elements of some of the world’s greatest stories, creating an air of playfulness even as unfolding events make the outcome look grim for the protagonists. Some readers may find it difficult to accept the explanation that their favorite authors did not truly invent everything in their books and plays, and that they only based these on the true people and places found in the Archipelago, but, if one can get past this (after all, I would argue that the “true” characters are generally less exciting and original than their portrayals in other fiction), the Archipelago proves a magical and wondrous place where just about anything can happen. Read the rest of this entry