Thursday, February 14, 2008

Dragonhaven - Robin McKinley

Jake Mendoza lives at the Makepeace Institute of Integrated Dragon Studies in Smokehill National Park. Smokehill is home to about two hundred of the few remaining draco australiensis, which is extinct in the wild. Keeping a preserve for dragons is controversial: detractors say dragons are extremely dangerous and unjustifiably expensive to keep and should be destroyed. Environmentalists and friends say there are no records of them eating humans and they are a unique example of specialist evolution and must be protected. But they are up to eighty feet long and breathe fire.

On his first overnight solo trek, Jake finds a dragon...a dragon dying next to the human she killed. Jake realizes this news could destroy Smokehill...even though the dead man is clearly a poacher who had attacked the dragon first, that fact will be lost in the outcry against dragons.

But then Jake is struck by something more urgent...he sees that the dragon has just given birth, and one of the babies is still alive. What he decides to do will determine not only their futures, but the future of Smokehill itself.

blurb from
I've loved Robin McKinley's writing ever since I first read The Blue Sword many years ago when it first came out. (Although I admit I haven't managed to read Sunshine yet.) I was sorry not to see anything new from her in recent years and felt a certain connection (totally one-sided of course) when I read her livejournal and discovered she has ME like me. I saw Dragonhaven reviewed by another participant in the Here be Dragons challenge and decided to try it myself. Luckily it was in at the library and I had it in time to take on holiday with me.

I'll start with a small negative and move on to what I liked. The tone of this book won't suit everyone. It is written in Jake's POV and in his voice. That means long, rambling, sometimes confusing teenage boy sentences that occasionally run on and on and on. It's a memoir really, but written by a young enough author to not yet have a great sophistication of style. That means there's a lot of description and discussion and not a lot of dialogue. It took me a chapter or two to get used to, but I found myself enjoying it once I got into the flow of it.

I liked Jake; he grew up in a certain isolation and lost his mother young and this means he has a slightly skewed vision of the world, but I like it - and him - all the same. His adventures are well described as are his reactions to them. It's all rather rambling, but everything is there and the pacing is solid. He describes himself as being rather "out of it" at the time he "adopts" the dragonet and this is also well shown within the text. He is indeed not quite in a solid headspace and probably wouldn't have done what he did if he had been, making this an important part of the story.

Ms McKinley's dragons are lovely. Well described and well realised. Lois, the dragonet Jake rescues, is totally ugly, but cute with it, and her growth and development are well followed. Jake has some rambling discourses on dragon intelligence - whether they have it and what form it might take - early in the book which sets up well his experiences when he makes contact with the adult dragons.

Happily, the dragons are intelligent, if not in the same way humans are, and Jake manages to get across their attempts to communicate without words while using words, something that is always a difficult feat.

This is not a perfect book - I didn't love it the way I do Beauty or her Damar books - but it is a good, solid read and I'm glad I decided to pick it up. I also find myself wondering if Jake's somewhat tangential storytelling comes from Ms McKinley's experience with ME (and I acknowledge I'm totally reaching here). I have real trouble with seeing the "big picture" and getting a good, linear feel of things which I attribute to my own ME and Jake's rambling memoir reminded me of what I might write if I tried to write a book (or perhaps even how these book reviews come out). Probably there's no connection at all, but the similarity did strike me.

Robin McKinley

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