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Dragon-centric fantasy

2013 Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction Honor book Seraphina, written by Rachel Hartman, follows a protagonist navigating the treacherous political territory between dragonkind and human society. For readers whose flights of fancy take the form of dragons, we recommend these recent novels.

Dragon Castle
by Joseph Bruchac
Middle School     Dial     346 pp.
6/11     978-0-8037-3376-3     $16.99

Rashko, the younger — and only sensible — son of a goodhearted but dim king and queen, finds responsibility heavy on his shoulders when his parents are enchanted away to the Silver Lands just as their kingdom is threatened by the wicked Baron Temny, who seeks to marry his sorcerous daughter to Rashko’s goodhearted but dim brother Paulek. The Baron wants something that was bequeathed to the brothers by their ancestor Pavol, who defeated a dragon and initiated a long reign of peace. Meanwhile, alternating chapters tell Pavol’s own story: when his parents are murdered by the invading Dark Lord, Pavol prepares to avenge them under his disguise as Pavol the Foolish. The two narratives encourage parallels, helped along by a mysterious tapestry that shows Pavol’s life but also elements from Rashko’s; frequent hints in Rashko’s narration (unremarked on by Rashko himself ) suggest not only that the kingdom is less unprotected than he believes but also that his parents and brother are less feebleminded than he takes them for. While the reader assembles pieces of the puzzle over Rashko’s head, Rashko assembles the puzzle of what the Baron is after — and how to defeat the Baron while remaining true to his peace-loving ancestor Pavol. Gypsy proverbs and frequent interjections add a Slovak flavor to the mountain setting, while humor enlivens the tone — Pavol’s encounter with the dragon is a particularly amusing set piece. The plot coheres into one magnificent whole as the various strands combine for a triumphal finish. [Anita L. Burkam]

From the September/October 2011 Horn Book Magazine.

The Runaway Dragon
by Kate Coombs
Intermediate, Middle School     Farrar     293 pp.
9/09      978-0-374-36361-1     $16.99     g

Princess Meg of Greeve (The Runaway Princess, rev. 9/06) may have foiled her parents’ plot to marry her off, but she’s not out of  the woods yet. When her adopted dragon Laddy hits adolescence and runs away (busy with princess lessons, Meg hasn’t been visiting him very often), she embarks on a quest to find him — a proper one this time, with ten royal guardsmen to keep her from doing anything rash. Luckily, they are turned into squirrels shortly after the expedition enters an enchanted forest, and Meg (along with the loyal, mismatched compatriots introduced in the previous book) is free to outwit the giant who kidnaps her friends; save a long-haired princess (name of Spinach) from a tower; and challenge the petulantly evil sorceress Malison, who’s entrapped some very familiar bandits in her fortress. Coombs again takes a familiar setup — feisty princess, fractured-fairy-tale kingdom — and makes it fresh with droll humor, brisk plotting, and multidimensional characters. Even as the world they inhabit grows increasingly zany, the characters themselves are never satirized, which allows the narrative to function at two levels: the ironic send-up and the earnest hero tale. Combined, they make for a warm, witty story that will leave readers clamoring for the next installment. [Claire E. Gross]

From the September/October 2009 Horn Book Magazine.

The Last Dragonslayer [Chronicles of Kazam]
by Jasper Fforde
Middle School, High School     Harcourt     286 pp.
10/12     978-0-547-73847-5     $16.99     g

Foundling and indentured servant Jennifer Strange runs Kazam Mystical Arts Management in the absence of its founder, the Great Zambini, hiring out the agency’s sorcerers, carpeteers, and pre-cogs for practical jobs to keep the company afloat. Flying carpeteers deliver organs for transplants; sorcerers magically fix plumbing and electrical systems; and pre-cogs are useful in flower nurseries, predicting colors of blooms in ungerminated bulbs. The power of magic is at a low ebb, making even these  mundane spells difficult. Then a pre-cog has a premonition of the death of the Last Dragon, and Jennifer learns that she herself is the Last Dragonslayer. All her skills at negotiating product endorsements, bribes, and threats are put to the test — as is her ability to handle the much-vaunted Big Magic. Full of “wizidrical” and literary energy, Fforde’s fantasy is smart, funny, and abundantly imaginative in its critique of commercial culture. Jennifer is an endless, zesty font of wit and comic analogies; the brisk, businesslike rhythm of her account deepens the comedy and gives the story irresistible momentum. Reminiscent of Pratchett in tone, this is nevertheless Fforde’s own creature entirely —  and entirely satisfying. [Deirdre F. Baker]

From the September/October 2013 Horn Book Magazine.

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn
by Alison Goodman
Middle School     Viking     536 pp.
12/08     978-0-670-06227-0     $19.99

Eon is in a fierce competition to be selected as the apprentice to the Rat Dragon (one of twelve who guard the Empire) and is engaged in a dangerous deception. If anyone discovers that he is secretly a she, not only is her death assured, but so is that of her master and sponsor. Eon is least favored among the candidates — her crippled hip is considered ill fortune — but she needs to be chosen or face financial ruin, slavery, or worse. Goodman writes deliberately, fleshing out her Japanese- and Chinese-inspired fantasy world with textures and colors, superstitions and mythology, prejudices and taboos, but the narrative is so driven by the impending contest that the protracted setup doesn’t drag. Then, at the ceremony, a surprise, and Eon is plunged into the perilous world of court alliances and struggles surrounding the ailing Emperor. The usual girl-dressed-as-a-boy trope gets a weightier-than-usual treatment here, and readers intrigued by gender issues will find plenty of interest in a pair of supporting characters, a eunuch and a male-to-female transsexual. The setting is so richly evoked and the complications so well paced that readers will be drawn on steadily to the bloodbath coup at the climax — but the outcome of significant developments in this book will only be seen in the projected sequel. [Anita L. Burkam]

From the March/April 2009 Horn Book Magazine.

The Dragon of Trelian
by Michelle Knudsen
Intermediate    Candlewick     406 pp.
4/09     978-0-7636-3455-1     $16.99     g

After a chance encounter, Calen, the mage’s apprentice, is befriended by Princess Meglynne (“King Tormon’s third and least  patient royal daughter”). Neither one realizes that within weeks the fate of two kingdoms will rest in their hands. Meg’s older sister is pledged to marry the prince of the neighboring rival country, a union that should end years of bitter hatred, strife, and warfare. As the castle prepares for the momentous occasion, Meg herself becomes quite smitten by Wilem, a courtier from the rival kingdom, but her deepest secret — that she has found a dragon and has bonded with it — she shares with Calen alone. As the two work together to learn more about the dragon, they uncover Wilem’s betrayal, a plot to kill Meg’s sister that threatens to plunge the kingdoms back into war. Using their combined resources — his knowledge of magic and her mindlink with the dragon — they race to avert the impending disaster. The length of the story dilutes the pacing, but otherwise this strong debut novel should find a welcoming audience among Gail Carson Levine and Shannon Hale fans. Moreover, the villain’s ultimate escape opens the door for further adventures featuring this endearing duo. [Jonathan Hunt]

From the May/June 2009 Horn Book Magazine.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
by Grace Lin; illus. by the author
Intermediate     Little     282 pp.
6/09     978-0-316-11427-1     $16.99

Minli lives with her father, a storyteller and dreamer, and her disapproving mother in a poor village in the shadow of Fruitless Mountain. An encounter with a goldfish peddler prompts Minli to seek the Old Man of the Moon, who makes his home atop the forebodingly named Never-Ending Mountain, to ask him for help in changing her family’s fortunes. On her arduous journey, Minli is assisted by folklore creatures, including a talking fish who points her in the right direction and a dragon who becomes her closest compatriot. Other children, too, help on her quest; twins (collectively named Da-A-Fu) outsmart wicked Green Tiger, and Minli’s friendship with a buffalo boy prefigures her success. The story’s many elements are entwined, neatly symbolized by the intricately tangled red threads of destiny that, as Minli discovers, are overseen by the Old Man of the Moon. The book’s format reflects this interconnectedness: interspersed with the main text are folktales explaining past events or stories allowing characters to relate their experiences. Likewise, as Lin’s appended author’s note indicates, her own life story informs the work, as do her dozen cited sources. Lovely full-page illustrations in blues, reds, greens, and luminous golds as well as delicate chapter-openers, all influenced by traditional Chinese art, contribute to this original, folklore-inspired fantasy’s sense of timelessness. The book’s numerous typos are unfortunate. [Elissa Gershowitz]

From the September/October 2009 Horn Book Magazine.

Dragon Run
by Patrick Matthews
Middle School     Scholastic     328 pp.
3/13     978-0-545-45068-3     $16.99
e-book ed. 978-0-545-52073-7     $16.99

On Testing Day, when twelve-year-olds are summoned to the castle to earn the dragon-mandated rank that will determine the course of their future lives, Al Pilgrommor is given a shameful score: zero, even lower than those who score a one and are forbidden to own property or father children. On the run from the Cullers who want to kill him, Al finds help: from the mysterious society of Evans that help him escape; from his friends Wisp and Trillia, who abandon their own apprenticeships to go into hiding with him; and from the sword his parents left him — which he can use to defend himself if he can teach himself to do more than parry. Author Matthews lays down his cards at a deliberately teasing pace as readers slowly begin to see the bigger picture: dragons are harvesting magical energy from the ranked humans, giving the dragons nearly unlimited power and preventing most humans from putting it to their own use. The society of Evans has a plan to loosen the dragons’ stranglehold on humanity, and Al, who is unsusceptible to magic, could play a role in that plan — if he can only figure out what he’s supposed to do. Stories that shed light; colorful characters who help the young protagonists along; and a plot that keeps getting bigger and bigger propel this sleeper tale to a whiz-bang conclusion. [Anita L. Burkam]

From the September/October 2011 Horn Book Magazine.

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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