The Last Dragonslayer (2010), by Jasper Fforde

Fforde-DragonslayerI 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.

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Tears of the Salamander (2003), by Peter Dickinson

This is an interesting and engaging pseudo-historical novel set in an alternative medieval Italy, in which alchemy and magic are powerful and feared forces.  Young Alfredo is orphaned, and moves to live with his Uncle Giorgio. He begins to learn the secrets of his family, his uncle’s control of and inextricable connection with the fiery powers of the volcano, Mt. Etna. Alfredo is destined to become his uncle’s heir, learning his powers, taking on the mystical control that he is told is his birthright. The story is engaging, but it is the characterization of young Alfredo and his associates that glows with alchemical brilliance.

While Tears of the Salamander seems to be written to a younger audience, in terms of language and length, it contains a few references which are aimed at more worldly readers, such as the topic of castration of young boys to retain their high-pitched voices in the choir and priests lusting after young boys (a passing reference).  All in all, it is a well-written and fast-moving narrative that incorporates the magic seamlessly into the everyday life of Dickinson’s alternative world. Tears of the Salamander is my favourite of Dickinson’s novels; I enjoyed it more than the similarly imaginative Ropemaker, perhaps because it is not attempting to be as epic, and is thus a more self-contained, satisfying reading experience.

 

Leviathan (2009), by Scott Westerfeld

In honour of my daughter’s 13th birthday today, I thought I should post a review of a book she loves. Then I read through my list and realized that I haven’t reviewed most of the books both she and I have read. Now I will have to go back and read them again to do them justice. In fact, I intend to reread Westerfeld’s “th” series—Leviathan, Behemoth, and Goliath—in order to present a more meaningful analysis of this series, which does so much for the steampunk sub-genre as well as presenting a brilliant alternative historical account of World War One. I know from talking to students (and Westerfeld himself) that the series is a fabulous introduction for students interested in world history. I firmly believe in the power of books not only to entertain and amaze, but also to entice young readers to question the world around them in important ways. Westerfeld’s text—all of them—do this admirably.

Leviathan

Westerfeld’s combination of steampunk and biological fantasy functions to create an interesting alternative history of World War I.  From the adult perspective, it will certainly engage young readers in European history; from a less pragmatic perspective it is one of the more gripping books for older child readers that I have encountered in a while.  It takes the archaic setting of Philip Reeve’s Larklight and increases the stakes.  Where Larklight is a romp, Leviathan—and Behemoth and Goliath that follow—concern life and death struggles; serious dilemmas concerning faithfulness, duty, friendship, and honour; questions of individual rights in the face of societal and national needs; and a perspicacious loris…
In terms of plot, Westerfeld pits the Darwinists (Britain and her allies) against the steampunk Clankers (Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire).  The protagonists are placed in a complicated relationship, Alek being the son of the murdered Archduke Ferdinand and Deryl being a commoner in the British Air Force: a girl, masquerading as a boy to fulfill her dream of flying in one of the Darwinist creations: the biological ecosystem that is the airship Leviathan.  In Leviathan, we meet the protagonists in their separate lives; as they move towards one another and we learn their personalities, Europe moves towards war and we learn the nuances of Westerfeld’s alternate historical setting.