I read the first five of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series as they came out in the early years of this millennium (I had to say that!), and was thrilled by the irreverent humour, the originality of concept, and the artfully handled literary allusions. “But,” I thought to myself, “these cannot be literature for the average young adult, for the simple reason that they require an extensive background in the classics of English literature.” What a shame, as I know my teenagers would love the humour and the disruption of readers’ expectations that Fforde revels in. So finally, in 2010, Fforde gratified my hopes, and produced his first YA novel. The Last Dragonslayer reveals the refusal to conform to readers’ expectations and narrative conventions, but is playing with a sub-genre more popular among child and young adult readers: fantasy, magic, and witchcraft. The tropes Fforde plays with will be recognizable to any readers familiar with Harry Potter, or Diana Wynne-Jones’s work, or Susan Cooper’s, Lloyd Alexander’s, Michael Ende’s, Cornelia Funke’s, Christopher Paolini’s, Chris D’Lacey’s… the list goes on.
The story centres around the Kazam Mystical Arts Management company, currently run by the “apprentice” Jennifer Strange, an orphan indentured to the owner, Mr. Zambini, who has mysteriously disappeared. Kazam’s business is to rent out sorcerers and other individuals adept at what magic there is left in the world: for magic is quickly being depleted as the dragons slowly die out. The last dragon is aging, and the magical world is in upheaval. Fforde constructs a world in which magic is an inherent part of consensus reality, woven through the day-to-day complications and frustrations of contemporary middle-class life: the combination is sardonic, and hilarious.
Part of the history of magic in the Kingdom of Hereford, in the Ununited Kingdoms, where Kazam is located, are the magical creatures created before such sorcery was outlawed. The fiercest of these is the quarkbeast: “a small, hyena-shaped creature that is covered in leathery scales and often described as: One-tenth Labrador, six-tenths velociraptor and three-tenths kitchen food blender” (Song of the Quarkbeast 87). You cannot train a quarkbeast: it chooses its owner. Or not. Wild quarkbeasts are rare, and hunted much as lions or grizzlies are in our world: as trophies. Quarkbeasts are also “fiercely loyal” (120), affectionate, and “for all their fearsome looks … obedient to a fault” (94), with a “placid nature” (5) that is belied by their appearance. It is not their fault that the mere sight of one sends fear into the hearts of even the bravest; in fact, Jennifer’s “might have been so unaware [of his fearsome appearance] that he wondered why people always ran away screaming” (6). That Jennifer Strange has The Quarkbeast as her companion is a clue to the reader, as well as those around her, that she is something more than an unmagicked apprentice—which of course she also is. We like Jennifer, her fortitude and refusal to be cowed by disreputable but powerful political forces, but we love the Quarkbeast.
Jennifer Strange, prophesy says, is destined to be a key player in the political and magical situation developing in the Ununited Kingdoms. Ultimately, she has to make choices that pit her moral integrity against the financial security of those who depend upon her. The situation is sufficiently complex that readers can not necessarily anticipate her responses, and what seems to be the wrong choice turns out (in true Jasper Fforde style) to be not only right but essential.