Jumpdrives & Cantrips

December 4, 2008, 1840
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Dragonhaven by Robin McKinleyMost readers know Robin McKinley best for book-length fairy tale retellings and the Damar novels, which are a more traditional type of heroic fantasy.  More recently she ventured into modern vampire fiction with Sunshine (2003), followed by a contemporary fantasy about a boy with the dilemma of illegally raising a dragon hatchling in Dragonhaven (2007). Numerous other authors have taken this basic plot idea for a ride: see also the works of Anne McCaffrey, Jane Yolen, and Mercedes Lackey for examples. This piqued my curiosity, and I wanted to see how McKinley would deal with the story of a boy and his dragon.

Set in an alternate contemporaneous United States, the world has always had dragons and they are still around, though they are limited to nature preserves with enforced borders. Scientists debate what a “real” dragon is, and generally believe that since no one has seen the “real” dragons, they may even be extinct; park rangers know differently even if they rarely ever see one. Then Jake happens upon a dying mother dragon whose last surviving hatchling will die without his assistance. Of course, he takes in the dragon despite the  questionable legality of the situation (one is neither allowed to kill or to directly save the lives of dragons in this world). And to make matters worse, the mother dragon killed a human in her own defence.

Jake and Lois’ shared growth is written as a retrospective from a twenty-something Jake’s point of view in 1st person narrative. Since the prose tends towards the frenetic, this didn’t really jive with me as the character’s voice; it reminded me more of a ten year old on a sugar rush:

I was tired, and hungry myself, and my head really hurt, and I was all wound up about what had happened, and about the fact that I had landed myself with an orphan dragonlet that I hadn’t a clue how to take care of, and how it was all going to be my fault when it died and I already felt as if everything that had happened was my fault–even though I knew that was stupid–and when it died too I’d never forgive myself and go crazy or something (52).

Whew–that’s enough to take the gusto out of the rest of my night. Good thing I wasn’t reading this one aloud to someone! Because of the discordant narrative style and consistent run-on sentences with stumble-over-the-next-word-to-get-there-fast-enough rhythm, I admit it took me a while to get into this book. Normally I’m able to relax into Robin McKinley’s prose almost immediately, but this story took a little time. I also wondered if the author’s own voice outweighed the character’s voice at times, given the similarity of flow McKinley has when blogging.

If you’re a stickler for logic there are a couple things that might cause hang-ups for you. First up: the non-interference clause preventing people working in Smokehill National Park, the US dragon preserve, from healing/helping dragons even though there are “lesser” dragons being cared for in a zoo setting. The contradiction here just makes my head hurt. Then there’s the debate about what a “real” dragon is, the general taxonomic politics, and how problematic this seems to be for the park. Taxonomy is one big debate about categories, and academics eat it up with a smile–look at the human species’ fossil record alone and you’ll realise we can’t manage anything certain for a relatively well-studied population. I just can’t believe the lack of research done on dragons even with political interference and controversy.

However, if you can suspend enough disbelief and want a story that closely follows character development and discovery of New Things (ie, dragons, which I might add are done believably) then you will really enjoy Dragonhaven. The journey is a slow one, but the moments that forward the plot itself are worth seeking out. Five years after the dragon discovery Jake writes an “epilogue”, and it includes the majority of character development and plot movement in the novel, but takes 288 pages to get there. Earlier parts of the novel could have benefited from some judicious editing, but on the other hand, the journey was worthwhile.

Dragonhaven is not the best book it could have been, but it was good nonetheless. It definitely has a coming-of-age feel to it, and McKinley put an interesting spin on the boy & dragon plot by giving it a modern and somewhat more political setting, even if the politics languished in the background. In the end, Robin McKinley has some interesting things to say about growing up, bridging understanding, the involvement of politics in knowledge production, assumed obligations, and sacrifice. For those messages, Dragonhaven is definitely a worthwhile read.

McKinley, Robin. Dragonhaven. New York: Ace Books, 2007. 338 pages. $8.99 (Canadian), paperback.

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