When you churn through as many books as I do during a year (and even I have to admit that my reading is a tad excessive) it’s rarer and rarer to come across a story that feels truly different. Particularly in the middle grade fantasy bracket, it’s safe to say that many stories follow similar themes, tropes and imaginings. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – we all love a story with familiar themes and fantastical worlds whose workings are easy to understand – but whenever I come across a book that feels a little different, there’s always a spark of excitement that flares to life in my stony chest. So it was with Dragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas, which we received from Allen & Unwin for review. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
‘Some people think opening a book is a simple thing. It’s not. Most people don’t realise that you can get truly lost in a book. You can. Especially you. Do not open any of these books without my permission, Euphemia.’
Effie is a pupil at the Tusitala School for the Gifted and Strange. When her grandfather becomes ill she discovers she is set to inherit the family library. The more she learns about it the more unusual it is. Before she knows it, her life is at risk from dark forces from this world and beyond, intent on using the books and the power they contain.
With her grandfather gone and the adult world ignoring her, can her unreliable classmates help save her life?
Packed with puzzles, curses, evil nemeses and a troupe of beguiling heroes, Dragon’s Green is an adventure novel for children about the nature of magic.
This blurb is a little misleading, because it makes Effie’s story sound just like every other hero of every other middle grade fantasy ever written. There are multiple ways in which Dragon’s Green sticks out from the pack and I will detail them now for you (you’re welcome!). First up, the blurb makes no mention of the world in which Effie lives. The story is set firmly in a world very like our own…however it is a speculative world (of the future?) in which a Worldquake – like an earthquake but affecting the entire globe at once – has knocked out the internet and general access to electricity and everyone is now reliant on archaic technologies to communicate (hello walkie talkies!), conduct research and generally get along. This worldquake and its effects are mentioned a number of times, but we are never privy to its causes or its place in the scheme of this world. I expect this will be expanded upon in further books.
Then there’s the Otherworld. There’s the Realworld (our world, Effie’s world, for want of a better term) and the Otherworld. The Otherworld runs on magic and renewed access to it has some connection to the Worldquake, but this connection is not entirely clear. Again, I expect this will become more apparent in later books.
The Realworld and the Otherworld exist independently to each other for the most part, unless an individual has the ability to perform magic. In this aspect, the book takes a bit of a Potter-esque approach, in that magic is known about (on some level) by non-magical people, but not talked about. The world of those possessing magic is complex. There are multiple roles or talents that the magically endowed could be born with – mage, witch, hero, warrior, healer, scholar – as well as magical objects (called boons) that can enhance the abilities of the magical.
Finally, the link between the Realworld and the Otherworld has a strong dependence on BOOKS! (Hooray!) Books (certain books, not every book) provide a portal to the Otherworld for certain readers and as such are sought after by the Diberi, a sect of magical individuals who wish to harness the power of being the Last Reader of certain books.
Have I convinced you yet, that this isn’t your average “kid-discovers-they-have-magic-powers-and-embarks-on-an-action-packed-and-mildly-humorous-quest-to-save-the-world” story?
Dragon’s Green felt refreshingly grown-up in its approach to the narrative. Effie is not hapless and bumbling, stumbling upon the answers as she develops her power and a belief in her own abilities. She is confident, innovative and knows when to delegate. The four supporting characters, who throughout the story grow to become friends, have backstories that are explored in enough depth to make the characters seem authentic and their motivations believable. There are multiple plot-threads that interact with and affect each other and far too many puzzles have been raised in this initial book to be resolved by the end of the story. Essentially, the story feels like it comes with a history that we don’t necessarily know yet…but it will be revealed by the end of the trilogy.
This book was a bit of a sleeper for me. I was interested from the beginning, but I didn’t really appreciate the originality and complexity of the story until I was deep into the final third. Dragon’s Green is a book that celebrates thinkers of all persuasions, not those who rush into situations with reckless abandon. Even the warrior character is clearly a lad with the brains for strategy and a backstory to hint at more depth than one would expect of a rugby-playing troublemaker. I also absolutely loved the way that another supporting character, Maximillian’s, talents have been revealed here and the hint that good and evil are not necessarily clear cut.
As an aside, the dustjacket of the hardback edition that I received had a little sticker proclaiming “This Book Glows in the Dark!” so I checked and it does. When left in a dark room, the cover turns into a delightfully atmospheric green overlay featuring the moon and the book title. Unusually, this edition has gorgeous illustrated endpapers inside a misleadingly plain purple cover. Nice touches, I thought, and ones to make this book a keeper.
It took me a while to come to this decision, but I have to nominate Dragon’s Green as a Top Book of 2017 – it’s got too much going on to be left languishing with your common-or-garden middle grade fantasy.
Do yourself a favour and grab a copy today! Or, you know, once pay day rolls around.
Until next time,