Here be Dragons

This short book is a delight from start to finish. It’s written in traditional fairytale style, beginning with ‘Once upon a time…’, with a charming simplicity which hides a great deal under the surface. The heroine of the story, who never has a name throughout the book, is a shapeshifter and magic-user, in a land which doesn’t understand or respect magic. Orphaned and raised by a kindly old man, she is forced to leave her home village when he dies, and sets off to find her place in the world. Her travels, the people she meets and the answers she finds to her questions about her missing father and her own magic, form the body of the story.

This is not your conventional fairytale. At every turn, the author neatly sidesteps the traps and tropes of the genre, so there are plenty of wonderful surprises in store, and a nice line in humour too. Every town or village or country the girl visits is a little different from the others, with its own customs and peculiarities, and exploring these differences is one of the highlights of the book, for me. There’s a prince, of course, and a witch, but they’re not at all as you’d expect. The prince is possibly my favourite character in the book, but even though it seems things are set fair for a little romance, things take a different turn. It’s so much fun when a book refuses to toe the boringly predictable line this way. I do like to have my expectations subverted.

If there’s a grumble at all, it’s that the girl seems a little mature for her age, given her rather sheltered upbringing. She accepts whatever comes her way with equanimity, judges people quite well and isn’t really bothered at having to travel around on her own. But then I suppose that being able to turn into a bear or a bird or something small enough to hide behind a bush is rather a good self-defence mechanism, plenty good enough to deal with most of the little difficulties that a not entirely law-abiding country can throw at her. I liked the way she grows over the course of the book, finding out what works and what doesn’t and using her talents not for power or glory, but as a low-key way to survive so that she can do what she really wants to do (mostly haunt the libraries and bookshops, which I can relate to).

This is the first of four novellas relating the beginnings of four characters to feature in a full-length fantasy novel later. [1] The book is intended for any age reader from 9 upwards, and it would work brilliantly with an adult reading it to a child, whether to draw out the subtleties and provoke discussion, or just to enjoy the subtext. It would be a great communal read for schools as well. Whether it works so well as an adult-only read is less certain. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as a refreshing change of pace from grittier adult fantasy, but despite the subtleties it felt very child-oriented at times. Not childish, but perhaps lacking some of the multi-layering of the best adult fantasy. This is not a criticism, just a comment and a matter of personal preference. An entertaining read, with deceptive simplicity and an unexpected degree of humour. Four stars.

[1] At the time of writing (June 2013) this is the only one of the four published, and the second novella, ‘Horse Feathers’, is currently being posted a chapter at a time on the website, which is at Amoeba Ink.

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