Fri 13 Jun 2008
Robin McKinley has been a powerhouse in the world of fantasy and children’s fantasy since her novel Beauty was published in 1978; her 1985 Newbery Award for The Hero and the Crown cemented that. She’s adapted a lot of fairy tales and even a folk tale (Robin Hood); her previous book before this one was Sunshine, which won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. Sunshine was not a children’s novel; nor was her novel Deerskin, but Dragonhaven is.
Jake Mendoza’s father is the head of Smokehill, the largest and best haven for Draco australiensis, in the world. Draco australiensis is more commonly known as a dragon; a true dragon, scales, flying, fire-breathing and all. Jake grew up there, homeschooled; he wants to be a ranger, or perhaps a scientist, when he grows up. When he’s almost fifteen, he goes out on an ‘overnight’ deeper into the dragon preserve. There, he comes upon a dying dragon, and the corpse of the poacher who killed her. Right after the dragon dies, he realizes that she had just given birth, and one of the babies survived. Without thinking, he rescues it — and later, after he’s become attached to her, remembers that there’s a law against it. What can he do now?
This is an odd book. It’s told as if Jake sat down at age eighteen or so (for the first three-quarters of the book; 23 for the rest) and wrote down everything that happened to him. He tends to write in run-on (and just very long) sentences, go off in tangents, and use mild slang (“like” as a placeholder in a sentence). He did, to me, sound like an educated but young male from the late 20th or early 21st century, which was what he was supposed to be. The opening was a little bit slow, because he felt like he had to give several pages of disclaimers and background information before he actually got into the story. That could potentially be a problem for many readers. I just kept reading and eventually the pattern of his sentences got hypnotic, and I was drawn into the world of Smokehill.
Very little happens in the book. Jake spends the bulk of it raising the baby dragonlet (he names her Lois), and in many ways, it’s not that interesting. It’s probably slightly more interesting to people who have raised either people or perhaps parentless animals than your average reader. I don’t have any children, but I felt that Ms. McKinley captured so many of the feelings of parenting spot-on. The idea of parenthood is a strong theme in the book, from Jake’s parents (he loses his mother before the book starts), to Jake and his dragonlet, to the other adults around him in parental roles, with their own children or not.
The book was intended, as far as I can tell, to be set in a sort of parallel universe, where Nessie exists (and has boyfriends), Yukon wolves are a scarier cousin of arctic wolves, and Mars has evolved intelligent life. The Martians (actually intelligent lichen-derived creatures — piles of rock that can talk) were one of my favorite parts; they seemed to add some whimsy to the novel. I liked Jake’s world, but knowing Ms. McKinley’s writing history, it’s not that likely that she’ll return to it.
I enjoyed the book, even though it was . . . odd. Different, perhaps, from the rest of Ms. McKinley’s work, but owing a little bit to Sunshine. She’s written first-person narrators before, but these two are (as far as I can remember) her first works of contemporary/urban fantasy. It’s an interesting new direction for her, but based on the cover, I’m guessing her next work (Chalice, Sept. of this year) is going to be high fantasy again. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone — I wouldn’t recommend that Ben read it, for example — but for dedicated fans or people a little more used to stream-of-consciousness writing and a willingness to let go and just absorb, it could be an interesting experience. 4/5 stars.