Sunday, May 1, 2011

No Such Thing As Dragons by Philip Reeve

A growl bubbled softly, deep in the sound box of the creature's chest.  The eye it aimed at him was sulfur yellow.  It opened its mouth, and its teeth were icicle white and sharp as nails and its tongue was a pink spike.  As it launched itself off the crag toward him, Ansel saw the long tail lash out behind it, striped like a serpent and frilled with feathers. 

Philip Reeve's new fantasy story, No Such Thing As Dragons, really reminds me of many of the classic British children's books I read in my youth, authored by writers  like E. Nesbit or Frances Hodgson Burnett or Andrew Lang, writers who stretched my vocabulary not just because they wrote in a particular dialect but also because they were so highly literate themselves.  You can tell by reading any of Reeve's books that his magnificent sense of imagination is firmly buttressed by an accomplished command of the language of story.    He is a vigorous and skilled writer, and has given us here an adventure that would read aloud wonderfully well.

It took several hours for them to make their way around the lake to the crags on the far side.  There they picked up the path that Else's father had told her of.  Faint and faded, it dropped giddily down slopes of scree and shale into a steep-sided valley.  Spikey crags crowned with starved-looking clumps of pine thrust out into the valley, and at their feet lay the glacier.  Ansel had not quite believed it when Else and Brock talked about it--a river of ice, creeping forever down the mountain.  Yet there it was, vast and cold, hatched all over with crevices and chasms, and though he could not see it moving he could hear it:  the faint grinding and grumbling as it dragged its way over the rocks, and sometimes a crisp icy crack from the fractured surface.  

The plot is classic and straightforward.  Ansel is a 10-year-old peasant boy in a large family, who stopped being able to speak at age 7,  when his mother died.  His mercenary father sells him to a passing dragon-killer in need of a servant who isn't a blabbermouth.   The dragon-killer is in fact a fake--he carries a crocodile skull around with him to persuade frightened villagers that he has freed them from dangerous fire-breathing wyrms. But he confides early on to a frightened Ansel, "There's really no such thing as dragons".   To him, it's all a big, profitable show.  Ansel's master Brock is headed for a remote village where the villagers are convinced that the dragon who lives in the nearby mountain has awakened.  So great is their fear that they have dragged a village girl up the mountain and left her tied up in the frigid cold as a sacrifice to the great beast.  When Ansel, Brock and a wandering priest make their way up the mountain, they discover that dragons may not be so imaginary after all. 

This is the kind of fantasy that grounds itself in a sense of reality.  I like the way the dragon is conceived as a natural creature, with natural behaviors related to other animals, rather than a mythological beast.  Ansel is convincing as a quiet, sensitive boy in a rough world, gradually coming into is own.  This is a fine addition to the canon of British fantasy adventure for young readers.

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