Phil Parker (tigertoy) wrote,
Phil Parker

Book review: Dragonhaven

My third and final orphaned book review is Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley.

This is a standalone novel.  It might be possible to produce a sequel, but one isn't obviously implied by this book.

This book affected me very personally, because while it's nominally about dragons, creatures we know don't exist in this world, it's metaphorically about tigers, or wolves, or any other "dangerous" endangered critters.  Rather than try too hard to be objective, I'll just state up front that what worked for me because of the very strong connection I made with the story might not work for other readers, and without that connection, I think this book would be pretty bad.  It's written in the first person from the point of view of a young, naive protagonist who only very partially understands a lot of what's happening, and it conveys the protagonist's confusion and awkwardness by being confusing and awkward.  This sort of literary device usually falls way flat for me, but this time, it works; I found the story gripping.  There are a couple of elements of the world itself that jarringly don't make sense (or at the very least really need a good explanation that's not given), and it's frustrating to get to the end of the book and not have some important stuff really clearly explained.  But on the other hand, if it were clearly explained it would be a lot harder to suspend disbelief.  It's about as believable as a modern world with real dragons could be.  And while I really can't look at it as science fiction, it's got some refreshing insight into a major SF trope.  Plus, it just might help a few people who don't already get it to understand the plight of endangered species (though I suspect that anyone who would get that point already understands).  9 out of 10.

****  MINOR SPOILER  ****

Maybe I'm being obsessive about the spoilers, but it's my review; I can call this spoilery if I want to.  I find it worth specifically mentioning that it's almost refreshing to read a book where establishing communication with intelligent telepathic non-humans is REALLY REALLY HARD.


It's pretty much the world we know, except that some mythical creatures exist.  Griffons and Nessie are mentioned in passing, and there's a small mention of what appears to be a dire wolf.  But mostly, dragons exist.  There are several species of giant lizard, a couple of which fly, and then there's Draco australiensisAustraliensis (hereafter, 'dragon') is far bigger than any modern land animals, flies, breathes fire, and has some sort of quality that makes it hard to observe in the wild.  It's also a marsupial, reproductively: extremely small babies born live are carried in a pouch, and for some reason this characteristic makes most of the public kinda go "meh".  Extinct in the wild, dragons only live in three reserves, one in Africa, one in Tasmania, and one in some vague location in the western US called Smokehill.  Smokehill is a national park the size of a small Eastern state protected by a force field.  In some slightly hard-to-swallow balance, Congress continues to pay the enormous bill to maintain the force field but refuses to support it beyond that.  So the tiny, struggling Dragon Institute ekes out an existence from the few tourists that come to the remote location to see the zoo that exhibits the other Draco species while keeping the whole world out of the rest of the reserve.

Jake, our protagonist, is the troubled teenage son of the director.  Living two hours away from the nearest restaurant would be a difficult life for any kid, and Jake's mother was killed a few years ago in the dragon reserve in Kenya.  His father (a control freak anyway and overprotective after the loss of his wife) finally allows him to do a solo overnight in the reserve.  Jake and Billy, the head Ranger, trek to an established base camp, and Jake goes off on his own.  He's overcome with an obsession, first to get to Pine Tor, a landmark that's a very ambitious day's hike from his base camp, and then to go beyond that camp, until he comes upon a grisly scene: a dying adult dragon and a toasted poacher armed with enough weaponry for a coup in a banana republic.  Worse, when he gets closer, Jake discovers that the dragon had just given birth.  He looks into the dying dragon's eyes and gets an overwhelming message of despair with a tiny note of hope.  Then Jake discovers that one of the dragonlets is still alive.  For reasons that are never adequately justified, for some reason it is a go-to-jail-for-life serious federal crime to save the life of a dragon.  But Jake is someone who's grown up in the ass end of nowhere rescuing orphaned baby animals, and he picks up the blob and tucks it into his shirt.  Everything at Smokehill promptly goes to hell in a handbasket; it turns out that the poacher was the scion of an extremely wealthy and vindictive family who take up a crusade to exterminate dragons.  Smokehill does have some supporters, and this injustice energizes them, but it's extremely dicey whether the place will survive.  And in this environment, under the eyes of loads of investigators, Jake is trying to raise an extremely illegal exotic animal.  He manages to continue this for a couple of years, but as Lois (as he's named the dragon) gets bigger and more active, it becomes increasingly impossible, so he arranges to become an early apprentice to the Smokehill Ranger program (Smokehill Rangers are, improbably, under the exclusive control of Smokehill and not the Park Service) and disappear to the most remote of the wilderness camps.  This is fine for a few weeks, but then a bad summer flu runs through the Institute and they can't spare a Ranger to babysit.  Jake manages to get permission to stay on his own, and he pulls this off for a little while, during which time an adult dragon shows up, nearly kills him, and then really meekly and contritely sits around and observes while Jake tries to work up to the idea that he should give Lois to the dragon to be raised properly.  Then he gets word from Eric (the head zookeeper and his sometime nemesis) that the authorities are coming for him.  Jake makes a last ditch appeal to the big dragon (that he named Gulp, after his reaction when he sees her), and Gulp surprises him by taking both Jake and Lois and flying off just before the helicopter arrives.  Jake spends a terribly uncomfortable five days underground in a dragon cave trying to communicate with the biggest dragon ever, who he named Bud (short for Buddha because of his peaceful demeanor).  I've glossed over the fact that Jake's spent the last two years with a permanent migraine headache as he's slowly and painfully accepted the idea that he's got a very crude, staticky mental communication channel with Lois, and secondarily with Gulp and then Bud.  When Jake comes out of the cave, he manages to meet the Army helicopter while standing 90 feet in the air on Bud's head.  The action is going out on 30-second-delayed live TV.  Somehow Jake manages to get rescued without anyone getting killed.  There's some chaos and a few years skipped, but with Lois and Bud, Smokehill finally has something that captures the public attention, which brings in enough money and support to keep things going.  Jake ends up marrying Martha the only girl roughly his age at the Institute.  Then Jake is at the Institute and gets an urgent message from Bud that Bud is coming.  The public gets an extremely rare closeup view of a dragon as Jake runs up to Bud has he lands.  And falls into Bud's mouth.  Bud is in such a hurry that he carries Jake off that way, and flies all-out for hours to an even remoter part of Smokehill, just in time for Jake to ceremonially place the 6th and last dragonlet of a new brood into the mother's pouch.  Jake and the reader are both very unsure of the details, but this is a very important dedication ceremony.  Then Jake returns (somehow not into disaster despite having been "eaten" in front of hundreds of tourists), Martha gets pregnant, Jake's father and Martha's mother announce that they're (a) having a baby and (b) getting married, and the mothers, over the strongest possible objections from the fathers, insist on having the babies in the dragon cave.  At the end of the book, we're left believing that after a few generations, humans and dragons will really be able to communicate.
Tags: book review, fantasy, robin mckinley
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