I believe that reading the right book can be a transformative experience. As a mother, former longtime bookseller and ardent reader of children's literature, I want to help kids start their reading journey on the right path. Insightful reviews and excellent suggestions of similar titles will ensure that readers are never without a good book in hand. My new job as an assistant to a literary agent is helping me to hone my critical skills and bring you the very best of the best in kid's books.
The Last Dragonslayer, the Chronicles of Kazam, Book 1 by Jasper Fforde, 287pp, RL MIDDLE GRADE
The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Ffordeis the first in the Chronicles of Kazam, his new series for young readers. Many years ago I gleefully gobbled up his debut adult book The Eyre Affair, the first book in the Thursday Next series. Thursday Next, daughter of Wednesday and Colonel Next, is a literary detective living in a parallel universe where an alternate history is playing out. Next has a pet dodo named Pickwick (cloning is a common, although bring back the wooly mammoth was probably a mistake) and lives in a world where literature is the most popular form of entertainment and capitalism and big business run rampant. Thursday's Uncle Mycroft has invented the Prose Portal, a device that lets everyday people enter works of fiction, and Hades, a criminal mastermind has used it to steal an original manuscript by Charles Dickens, ultimately threatening to kill off literary characters. Thursday has to hunt him down before he changes great works of literature forever and in doing so she irrevocably alters the end of Jane Eyre. The brilliance, well one of them, of this novel is that, in Thursday's world, Jane Eyre ends with the titular character sailing off to India. In her efforts to stop Hades from killing Jane, Thursday brings about the ending of the novel that we know and, with a little intervention, brings Jane and Rochester together. I tell you all this because these are fantastic books that anyone with a minor literary background and sense of humor will enjoy, but also as a way of letting you know what to expect from The Last Dragonslayer.
In The Last Dragonslayer Fforde creates an alternate universe - the Ununited Kingdom - where magic was once a powerful and respected force and dragons roamed the land. Now, magic is waning. The Troll Wars (at least four of them) have left many orphans and these foundlings often find themselves left on the doorstep of the convent of the sacred order of the Blessed Ladies of the Lobster. At the age of twelve, foundlings are sent into servitude where they are left to work off their debt to society until they are eighteen and can become full-fledged citizens. This is how main character Jennifer Strange (all foundlings are named by the Lobsterhood) finds herself on the verge of turning sixteen and driving her 1958 Volkswagon Beetle (drivers are awarded licenses based on maturity, not age) packed tight with Lady Mawgon, Wizard Moobin, Full Price and the Quarkbeast, a . In the absence of her boss, the Great Zambini (who was secretly working children's birthday parties, a shame upon all wizards, in an effort to keep business solvent) Jennifer is running Kazam Mystical Arts Management and ferrying clients to jobs. The offices of Kazam Mystical Arts Management are based out of Zambini Towers, once the luxurious Majestic Hotel, second tallest building in Hereford after King Snodd's Parliament and now a crumbling, oddly enchanted structure that houses the last forty-five "sorcerers, movers, soothsayers, shifters, weather-mongers, carpeteers, and other assorted mystical artisans." Oddities like a magicked elevator shaft that requires riders to jump into it and shout out the floor they want, the self-tidying tenth floor, visual echoes and the Transient Moose, a practical joke from long ago that moves randomly around the building. Sadly, as magic wanes and practitioners of magic are looked down upon, the residents of Zambini Towers are forced to clear drains, rewire houses and predict the color of unsorted flower bulbs, among other tedious tasks.
When The Last Dragonslayer begins Jennifer finds herself with a new foundling to train, the twelve year old Horton Prawns who prefers to go by the name Tiger. As she trains Tiger, who proves very competent, loyal and smart, she also tries to deal with the leak of a premonition and a surge in the levels of magical power in the land, both of which have something to do with Maltcassion, the last living dragon and possessor of a huge swath of the last undeveloped land in the Ununited Kingdoms. In both content and character, there is little if anything in The Last Dragonslayer that makes it inappropriate for young readers. While Jennifer is fifteen, almost sixteen, and I usually recommend that kids read books with characters not much older than themselves, what prompted me to give The Last Dragonslayer a MIDDLE GRADE rating is the humor of the book, all of which is based around socio-political things like a government that keeps its population under control and mostly impoverished by owning all the major businesses as well as a population that lives to consume the cheaply made, disposable items the government is churning out. On top of all this, there are armies massing and landships being loaded in anticipation of a war for the land that will be left behind when, as the prophecy indicates, the last dragonslayer will kill the last dragon at noon on Sunday, leaving his land free and first come, first serve. About halfway through the novel and in a scene that reads like a sketch from an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, Jennifer learns that SHE is the last dragonslayer and she inherits Exhorbitus (called so "probably because it was very expensive) the dragon slaying sword and the Slayermobile, a hopped up Rolls Royce with a lance attached to the side, among other things. As the second half of the novel unfolds, Jennifer finds herself negotiating with the fatuous King Snodd and the wiser but woefully underprepared Duke of Brecon and every company in the land wanting her as a spokesperson and to buy the rights to make toy version of Exhorbitus and the Slayermobile as well as television personalities like Yogi Baird asking her to speak on their shows.
Fforde brings this first book in the Chronicles of Kazam to a poignant, thoughtful end that ties up some of the earlier mysteries in the book like the surge in magic. Interestingly enough, the final magic that brings about a satisfying ending is, in part, powered by the millions of people who, in an act of avarice, are crowding around the barriers of the dragonland, waiting to claim a piece of property for themselves upon his death, just like the government. As Gordon von Gordon, the dragonslayer's apprentice says near the end of the book, summing up one of the major themes in Fforde's writing,
King Snodd and the Duke of Brecon are powerful, Miss Strange. They have the power, as you have seen, to change the law at a whim and outlaw their citizens at their command. But even they are powerless when it comes to the might of commerce. Governments may come and go; wars will reshape the Ununited Kingdoms many times. But companies will stay and flourish. Show me any major event on this planet, and I will show you the economic reason behind it. Commerce is all powerful, Miss Strange. Commerce rules out lives.
It's ideas like these that will require a more mature reader to really grasp the humorous themes of The Last Dragonslayer. Because this is a novel of an intellectual nature, there isn't much action until the last few chapters of The Last Dragonslayer and there is not a lot of description of or development of Jennifer Strange and Tiger Prawns, characters who will return in the next books, The Song of the Quarkbeast and The Return of Shandar, hopefully with more depth to their already interesting personalities.
Speaking of Quarkbeasts, Jennifer's Quarkbeast has to be one of the coolest characters in the book. Described as"one tenth Labrador, six tents velociraptor and three tenths kitchen food blender," Strange's beast has razor sharp fangs and is hideously frightening but gentle at heart, although it is often hard to convince others of this. And he loves to eat metal, magnesium especially.
For teens and adults, don't miss
The Thursday Next Novels . . .
The Nursery Crimes Division novels . . .
Fforde's newest novel, set in a world without color...