1.08.2013

Dragon Rider, written and with interior illustrations by Cornelia Funke, translated by Anthea Bell, 523 pp, RL 4

DRAGON RIDER is now in paperback!

Like Diana Wynne Jones and Joan Aiken, Cornelia Funke is a master at creating a complete magical world populated with intriguing characters, human and otherwise. Funke's Inkworld Trilogy is a perfect example of this and Dragon Rider is no exception. The world of Firedrake, a silver dragon who feeds on moonlight, is populated with Brownies, Dwarves, enchanted ravens, talking, map-making, airplane flying rats, a Homunculus, a Dubidai, a djinn, a basilisk, a sea serpent, a roc bird and sand elves. When encroachment by humans threatens the secret enclave of Firedrake and his fellow dragons, it is he alone, along with his brownie girl Sorrell, who decides to travel the world in search of a fabled land where dragons can live safely.

In addition to hiding themselves from humans, the dragons are also hiding from a fierce creature with gold scales who terrorized them over a hundred years ago, forcing half the dragon population into hiding in a magical place called the Rim of Heaven and eating most of the other half. Nettlebrand, the monster, is sort of an über-dragon. A creation by a mad alchemist who experimented with dragon blood, Nettlebrand was meant to help him acquire more of this. Instead, he turned on his master, eating him and, over the course of hundreds of years, eating eleven of the twelve homunculi (a fully formed miniature person) the wizard made to tend to Nettlebrand. Twigleg, the last living homunculus, has spent over 300 years tending to Nettlebrand, telling him endless stories and polishing his golden scales while his enchanted ravens search for the remaining dragons. When a mountain dwarf named Gravelbeard who is in the employ of Nettlebrand spots Firedrake the chase is on.

While Dragon Rider has an abundance of magical creatures with fascinating histories and abilities, it is also rich with delightful human characters and wonderfully detailed geographical locations. Of course there is Ben, the young orphan who fulfils the prophecy of the Dragon Rider, but there is also Professor Barnabas Greembloom who, since first spotting a wood fairy tangled in garden netting at the age of ten has dedicated his life to magical creatures. He is joined by his wife Vita and his daughter Guinevere, who is almost the same age as Ben. Then there is Zubeida Ghalib, the dracologist who lives in a village near the coast in Pakistan where dragons used to congregate in harmony with humans until Nettlebrand's attack. Firedrake and his flock are only able to fly at night when there is a moon in the sky, but Professor Greenbloom assures Ben, Sorrel, Firedrake and Twigleg that Zubeida has discovered a way to allow the dragons to fly in daylight. She shares her secret, along with a mysterious prophecy found in the Tomb of the Dragon Rider, with the group while the villagers celebrate the return of a dragon. My favorite part of the book takes place in Tien Shan, which means celestial mountains, and is the mountain range in Tibet. The travelers find themselves in Tien Shan at a monastery with a history of dragons and dragon riders. The monks celebrate Firedrake and Ben and prepare them for their journey to peaks of Tien Shan to search for the Rim of Heaven. Funke does a wonderful job describing the monks and their way of life right down to the tea they drink that is flavored with yak butter and the insides of their temple.

While Nettlebrand is a very fierce, merciless creation, I think that his character will not be too frightening for younger readers or listeners. In addition to reading Dragon Rider, I listened to the audio production narrated by the actor Brendan Fraser, who did a magnificent job. Although I listened to him narrate the excellent production of Inkspell, I didn't realize that he was capable of such a variety of voices and sounds effects that make up the reading of Dragon Rider. Fraser's characterization of Nettlebrand can get a little scary, however, with all the growling and snorting and wickedness he embodies, and probably is not recommended for bedtime listening for some, but excellent for any long car ride!

Funke is a truly remarkable writer who's works will be on the shelves for decades to come. Along with JK Rowling, she is a landmark author for this generation of readers. Although the flavor is decidedly different, the quest is similar in Grace Lin's exquisite Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. For other great dragon books, though less epic in their storytelling, click here.

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