The Mark of the Dragonfly is the debut middle grade novel by Jaleigh Johnson, a gamer whose previous work has been tie-in novels set in the Forgotten Realms fiction line. The fantastic jacket art for The Mark of the Dragonfly is by Nigel Quarless. The Mark of the Dragonfly has to be one of the best middle grade fantasy novels I have read in quite a while, even more so because Johnson takes ideas that we are now well familiar with (and possibly even tired of) and quickly and masterfully blends them into the amazing world she has created, making something that feels new and familiar at the same time, and in the best way possible. When we first meet thirteen year old Piper Linny, she is preparing for one of the violent, deadly meteor storms that regularly hits near her home, Scrap Town Number Sixteen. The desperately poor residents of the town wait, hidden and protected, until the last moment possible, then rush out into the fields to scavenge the debris left behind. These meteors that make their fiery entrance into the World of Solace are carrying artifacts like watches, music boxes and even books in an unfamiliar language from other worlds encased inside of them. The scrappers, in turn, sell the artifacts they excavate to anyone they can, the archivists who spend their lives collecting and studying relics from the meteor storms paying the most. This idea alone gripped me and, while I loved every page of The Mark of the Dragonfly, I was a bit disappointed that more about this phenomena was not revealed over the course of the story. Perhaps that is something for sequel?
Piper, an orphan, is known around Scrap Town Sixteen for her stellar skills as a machinist, able to fix anything, something she tries to play down, not wanting to draw attention to herself since her father died. He left Scrap Town Sixteen to work in the factories of King Aron of the Dragonfly Territories, a ruler bent on using every last resource from his realm to build ships and explore the Uncharted Lands, even if it means provoking the Kingdom of Merrow with a refusal to trade. Piper's father died from a form of black lung and she still harbors deep resentment for the King and what he is doing to his kingdom.
A missing friend sends Piper out into the meteor storm before it's entirely safe and she watches as a gypsy caravan is spilt into pieces by a meteor. Searching the wreckage for medical supplies to help her friend, Piper discovers a girl, a few years younger than her. She manages to get the girl back to her home and her friend to his and the mystery begins. When the girl, Anna, awakens, she behaves very strangely and has almost no memories, but does bear the special and rare mark of King Aron's inner circle on her inner arm - an intricate, delicate tattoo of a mechanical dragonfly. However, Anna does know that Doloman, the man she only knows as "the Wolf," who comes to collect her is not her father, as he claims, and she and Piper are forced to flee the town after injuring him in an attempt to escape. Taking a charge that she does not necessarily want, but driven by the idea that there must be a reward for the return of this girl, Piper decides that their only hope is to get to the capital of Noveen and return Anna to the King and hopefully her true family.
Not realizing that Anna has a well stocked money belt under her skirts or that the the Mark of the Dragonfly assures her special treatment wherever she goes, Piper plans to sneak them onto the 401, an antique heap of a train that has been worked over and repurposed with weapons and protection devices to keep thieves from stealing the cargo. Once on the train, but not before almost being burnt to a crisp, the girls are quickly discovered and, almost as quickly, set up in a luxurious private car of their own when Anna's mark is revealed. Gee, the odd green-eyed boy and head of security on the 401 is convinced that these girls will be trouble, but Jeyne Steel, the engineer with the mechanical arm, and Trimble, the fireman, prove more welcoming.
Johnson deepens her story in The Mark of the Dragonfly, adding layers and depth to her characters as secrets about them are revealed as the story unfolds. It seems that some of the inhabitants of the World of Solace have abilities that lean toward the magical, in a variety of ways. The suspense of finding out what is keeping Anna from her memories and who this girl with the Mark of the Dragonfly really is unfolds as the tension builds as the 401 nears the Cutting Gap, a small pass in the mountains where the train is usually attacked by raiders. There are elements of Steampunk, a sub-genre of science fiction that features steam-powered machinery in a setting inspired by an industrialized 19th century Western civilization, and there are elements of a dystopian setting in The Mark of the Dragonfly. Johnson blends these themes effortlessly into her plot and makes the story completely her own. Her world building is remarkable and seamless - I slipped into the World of Solace quickly and, perhaps in part due to Quarless's wonderful illustrations, felt like I could see everything as described. To this world, Johnson adds creatures that are not human, creatures with a history and presence like the sarnun. The sarnun play a small but important role in The Mark of the Dragonfly, and perhaps will do more in subsequent books - if there are any. The revelation of the secret behind Anna is especially moving, and makes her attachment to Piper all the more fragile and vital and heartbreaking, for me as an adult reader. I assume, as with most middle grade fiction (and all kid's books, really) that all new books are just the first in a series and, while there is nothing to indicate this about The Mark of the Dragonfly, I would be stunned (and sad) to find it is not the first in a series. I want to know more about King Aron and his designs, the history of Doloman and, of course, what is next for Piper, Anna, Gee, Jeyne and Trimble.
Source: Review Copy