I really enjoyed Kristin Butcher’s newest novel, The Druid and the Dragon. Not surprisingly, because ever since reading Return to Bone Tree Hill (2007) almost 10 years ago, I have enjoyed every book of hers I have read. But it’s been a while.
Butcher has written remarkable YA novels (Truths I Learned From Sam remains my favourite of her books), as well as books for younger readers (Isobel’s Stanely Cup is a fabulous historical novel for early readers), and a number of Orca Currents, “short, high-interest novels with contemporary themes written specifically for middle-school students reading below grade level.” The Druid and the Dragon is a departure for her, falling as it does into the fantasy subgenre; yet it is fantasy that middle-school readers, not only older teens, will readily engage with.
To being with, a simple thing: she includes a map! All fantasy novels involving travel need a map. That the map looks much like England is not an oversight, for the enemy invaders against whom King Redmond must defend his kingdom are Norsemen. We find ourselves in an implicit alternate history, where druid is a culture, not just a role, and the palimpsest of reality over earth-magic rings true.
Maeve, our protagonist, is torn, for she was not born a Druid, yet the Druids claim her as one of their own. Her difference in appearance and character to her family sets her apart, and we wonder if perhaps some interesting tale of her birth might be forthcoming. Not in this book, but I hold out hope; Druid is the first in a trilogy.
Disowned by her parents, but angry at the Druids who have lied to her, 13-year-old Maeve is forced to make very difficult decisions regarding her future.
[Bradan] said he wanted to take her on as an apprentice! The prospect sent Maeve into a panic. What if she accepted his offer and it turned out he was wrong …? If the Druids threw her out and her parents disowned her, she would have no one to care for her and nowhere to live.
Then a spark of defiance – something Maeve had felt from time to time in her life but never acted upon – flared inside her. … She wouldn’t stay where she wasn’t wanted; nor would she go where she didn’t belong.
We watch as her youthful anger and obstinacy gives way to adult logic and acceptance, carried through her training by the Druids, who she ultimately sees as the best port in the storm of her life.
While the Druid Bradan recognises a power in her, self-doubt remains her dominant characteristic; she lacks focus and patience, and struggles to learn to interpret her visions and the dreams of others. Her inate ability is ultimately called on before she feels ready, and the fate of their kingdom rests in her ability to convince a doubting King of her truth. Hoping not to give too much away, I will say that Maeve’s decisions at this crucial point in the narrative reveal a maturity – both as a person and as a Druid – that she still denies having.
Oh. And there’s a dragon. Of course. So what about the dragon? Underlying Maeve’s doubts and insecurities is an affinity with the natural world that she does not give much credence to. Readers couched in fantasy tropes will be shouting at her: “That’s a clue, you silly girl! Of course you have power!” And when she finds herself hiding in a cave with the dragon, Riasc Tiarna: “No, silly girl, not everyone can talk to dragons in their minds!” But Maeve’s insecurities are perfectly in keeping with the abused young girl who has been abandoned by her family and has not yet found where she belongs. As the narrative unfolds (with excitement and war and a battle between dragons, but you’ll have to read it yourself for the good bits), Maeve moves towards acceptance of her power and place in the Druid community. After the narrative storm subsides,
Maeve’s heart was so full she was sure it was going to burst. Never had anyone made her feel so special. Suddenly she wasn’t the least bit afraid of what lay ahead. “I want to continue to learn the ways of the Druids, and I want to learn all Bradan can teach me. I think I’m finally beginning to understand who I am – and why I am. … this is the life I was meant for.”
Given that there are two more novels in the trilogy, we can surmise that her lack of fear will be tested. She may not be afraid of what lies ahead, but readers will anticipate future hardships, and be anxious to see how she moves through them.
Butcher is not only an author, but an artist as well, and her Facebook followers have been enjoying teasers in the form of sketches of characters and scenes from the book leading up to its release last week. I’ve included a couple of my favourites, but the full gallery can be found on her website, where you can also read more about the trilogy and her other works.