Goodreads: The Dragon’s Tooth
Series: Ashtown Burials #1
Antigone and Cyrus Smith live in a dilapidated hotel with their older brother Daniel. No one ever checks in, until the night a strange man requests a specific room. By morning, the man has died, the hotel has burned to the ground, and Daniel has disappeared. Informed that the only way to save their brother is to join a mysterious order of explorers, Antigone and Cyrus find themselves racing against time to find the order and swear their loyalty. Not everyone in the order, however, welcomes the new initiates. Surrounded by enemies, the two will have to prove their skill and bravery if they want to reunite their family.
The Dragon’s Tooth is one of those rare middle grade books that constantly surprises, not only with its imagination and the vividness of its world, but also with its unexpected depth. Though the plot may sound not unfamiliar—young heroes find they belong to an ancient order—Wilson sets it apart from standard fantasy fare by grounding it in the nitty gritty of everyday life. His characters have real backgrounds, full of pain as well as mundanity, that shape who they are. They face real challenges that test not only their physical endurance but also their moral character. And when they fight, they bleed. Far from being fantasy wish fulfillment, The Dragon’s Tooth looks life in the face and admits to readers that sometimes life hurts. But that does not take away any of its wonder or enchantment.
Wilson does so much right with this book that writing a manageable review about it all seems almost impossible. Certain aspects, however, immediately stand out because they contrast with elements I often see in contemporary media. For example, I think many readers will find themselves pleased with the strong emphasis on family. The Smiths’ parents are, actually, missing, if you want to put it that way—their father died in an accident and their mother lies in a coma. However, Cyrus and Antigone are cared for by their twenty-year-old brother, who had to give up college to provide for them and who works hard to do so. All three have a special bond that they recognize as especially important as a result of losing their parents. Their actions throughout the book are dictated by their desire to remain together and to help each other. They furthermore remain devoted to their mother, whom they visit regularly.
The setting of The Dragon’s Tooth also stands out. The Smiths currently live in Wisconsin. That’s right—Midwestern America, where you probably thought nothing ever happened. Their lives, however, have a certain Americana charm. They live in a dilapidated motel with one of those old neon signs and they eat in one of those classic truck stop diners. It is a really beautiful choice because I do not think I have ever seen it done. Like Suzanne Collins, who evidently wrote The Underland Chronicles as a sort of urban Alice in Wonderland, Wilson takes an overlooked location and gives it the possibility of magic.
Magic, however, never comes without a price and The Dragon’s Tooth pulls no punches. From the very moment they accept the invitation to join the order of explorers, Antigone and Cyrus find themselves battling not only monsters and villains, but also the pettiness of fellow students and resentful adults. Their acceptance to the order comes with a stipulation that no one else has to meet. But the Smiths meet their challenges with grace (well, most of them). They lost their parents at a young age and they know life is seldom fair and that sometimes they have to fight.
The fighting Wilson shows is not pretty, either. While some middle grade books seem to think children cannot handle reality, The Dragon’s Tooth not only shows the real effects of violence (though not in a gruesome way—just acknowledging that people are going to have broken limbs or bruises or bloody gashes) but also introduces a villain who performs ghastly experiments on his victims in order to achieve something he perceives as greater than humanity. There are corpses in this book, as well as grieving survivors. But Wilson seems to trust his audience to handle it—like the Smiths, they may well have experienced suffering in their own lives.
Finally, I just have to note that those who wish for more diversity in contemporary media will probably see this book as a good start. For one, it is full of strong female characters—strong as in confident, skilled, compassionate, and intelligent. Some of them are fighters and some of them are not; they do not have to fit into a certain type of mold to be considered strong. Furthermore, the Smiths’ mother comes from Brazil, so the protagonists have a mixed background, one that is celebrated when another character notes that Cyrus and Antigone have inherited their mother’s darker skin and hair—he calls this a “gift.” Another important character is described as having black skin. So, if we ever get a movie of this series, we can hopefully expect a very diverse cast, one that honors the spirit of the order of explorers, which is international in character and celebrates the skills and insights its varied members can bring.
Aside from the technical notes of how family, setting, and diversity are handled, The Dragon’s Tooth is an enthralling read in its own right. The characters are likable, the premise engaging, and the plot suspenseful. Action fills nearly every page, yet the book manages to balance the need for plot advancement with moments that illustrate the emotional growth of the characters. The characters, just as much as the magic of the world they live in, drive the book, making me eager not only to continue their story but also to reread the parts of their story I already know. And a book that bears rereading is truly a good book.