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The Pit Dragon Chronicles
Jane Yolen
Harcourt, 303, 354 and 296 pages
Volume 1 Dragon's Blood
Volume 2 Heart's Blood
Volume 3 A Sending of Dragons

The Pit Dragon Chronicles
Jane Yolen
Jane Yolen has been called the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the 20th century because of her many fairy tales and story books. She has written over 200 books for children, young adults and adults, along with hundreds of stories and poems. She's a past-president of SFWA and has been a member of the Board of Directors of SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) since its inception. She lives in Massachussetts.

Jane Yolen Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review:The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens
SF Site Review: The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens
SF Site Review: The Sword of the Rightful King
SF Site Review: Sister Emily's Lightship
SF Site Review: The Wizard's Map
SF Site Review: Armageddon Summer
SF Site Review: Here There Be Dragons
SF Site Review: The Sea Man
SF Site Review: Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast
SF Site Review: The Transfigured Hart

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Hebblethwaite

In this box set, Jane Yolen takes us to the desert world of Austar IV. Once a penal colony, the planet's economy is now based around its native dragons, whom the human settlers breed to battle each other in Pits. There is a two-tier social structure of masters and "bonders," the latter wearing bags which they must fill with money before they can buy freedom and become masters themselves. Our protagonist is Jakkin Stewart, a young bonder at the nursery of Master Sarkkhan (all descendants of Austar's original convict population have a double-K in their names), who plans to steal a dragon and train it himself.

The first book in the series, Dragon's Blood, focuses on Jakkin's life at the nursery, telling of his attempts to steal an egg (which, of course, he succeeds in doing) and raise the dragon in secret. For a story like this to work, the setting has to feel absolutely real, particularly when placing an iconic creature of fantasy in a science fiction tale (and The Pit Dragon Chronicles remains SF throughout, though it plays a game of fantasy). Yolen does a superb job of evoking the atmosphere of the nursery and portraying the dragons as natural creatures. You feel the slime that newborn dragons are covered in, the burns caused when dragon's blood touches human flesh... You can even almost smell the dragons -- for once, it is high praise to say that a novel stinks! (As an aside, Dragon's Blood is an example of how to weave background information into a text that many other writers would do well to emulate.) The characters are similarly well drawn, from the nasty old head bonder Likkarn to the mysterious girl Akki (to whom Jakkin takes a shine). Brilliantly, Yolen even gives a valid reason for using archaic language: dragons need to be addressed as "thee" and "thou", which allows for lines of dialogue that would otherwise be ridiculous, such as, "Art hungry again, thou bag of lard?". Little details like this give the book its vivid colours.

It's not all good, though: it takes a year before Jakkin's dragon is ready to fight in the Pits, so Yolen has of necessity to compress it and miss bits out, which unfortunately makes the novel feel disjointed in places and can make it hard to follow the passage of time. The ending is also a bit of a let-down, as we learn the plot has been stage-managed to an unfortunate degree. Still, Dragon's Blood gets the trilogy off to an excellent start, and remains an engaging tale in its own right.

One of the most pleasing things about The Pit Dragon Chronicles is the way that Yolen continually widens her canvas; it makes the sequence feel like a real trilogy -- a set of three separate but linked stories -- rather than a single tale which has been chopped into three for the sake of it. The second volume, Heart's Blood (named after Jakkin's dragon), introduces the new master (and us) to the political situation on Austar: the planet is a Protectorate, outside the direct jurisdiction of the Galaxian Federation (which nevertheless has a hand in some of the world's administration). A group of Austarians has recently rebelled, aiming to bring down the present system of masters and bonders. This is a matter of concern for both the Federation and some masters, and Jakkin is persuaded by Federation representative Senator Golden to travel to The Rokk, Austar's capital, and infiltrate a rebel cell (though he's not really interested in politics -- he goes because Akki infiltrated the same cell, and has now gone missing).

Heart's Blood is perhaps the best novel of the three, as it maintains the atmosphere of the first (The Rokk is a marvelously realized place, with its mirrored windows that reflect sunlight, designed to confuse the prisoners once held there) whilst expanding the action on to a wider stage. The political aspect is nicely handled and pleasingly complex: Jakkin comes to no firm conclusions about whose view is best (how could he, when dragons are all he knows?). The plot rattles along, taking several surprising turns, before coming to a thrilling conclusion that opens the world up yet again.

The third book, A Sending of Dragons, takes Jakkin and Akki up into the wild mountains of Austar, where they become caught up in a hidden society of cave-dwelling humans who use dragons for their own ends -- and make a desperate bid to escape. Yolen's style remains thoroughly readable, but this volume is ultimately unsatisfactory. The problem is not the story so much as the ending, which doesn't round off the book or the series as well as it should. Surely A Sending of Dragons deserves a more dramatic ending than it gets (some sort of final confrontation, at least); and the issues raised in Heart's Blood need resolving properly (but see below). However, for all that, it is still an entertaining story in and of itself.

As a whole, the Chronicles deal with some interesting themes. Coming of age is an important one, with Jakkin's constant striving to become a man. But it's an open question whether he ever does: he's a man in society's eyes once he becomes a master, but then Jakkin is thrown into the world of Austarian politics, for which he is hardly prepared. And, when we find out more about the dragons, it's uncertain whether any human on Austar has ever truly been a man (or woman). It's a useful question to ask ourselves: do we ever really grow up, or are we always learning? Yolen gives no clear answer, and perhaps there isn't one.

As noted earlier, there is also a political aspect to the books, and the issues remain as complex at the end of the sequence as they were when they were first raised. If anything, they get more complicated: consider, for instance, the following extract from near the end of the trilogy, comparing the society of cave-dwellers with life in Sarkkhan's nursery.

The acres of painstaking hoeings did not seem to belong to a folk who savaged a dragon hen just a day after she'd laid her eggs to their silent approval. [Jakkin]... remember[ed] his own home, a place where dragon breeders ate dragon steaks and men linked with dying beasts reveled in their cries in the stews. People -- people were a puzzle.
There's no consensus over whose opinion or way of life -- the bonders', the Federation's, the rebels', the cave-dwellers' -- is the right one, or even if any is right at all. And the trilogy is all the better because of that.

The three books in The Pit Dragon Chronicles were first published in the 1980s, but a fourth volume, Dragon's Heart, is in the works, perhaps to be published in 2007. This is to be welcomed, because A Sending of Dragons feels like only the first half of a story. The extract of Dragon's Heart provided in the third book doesn't give much away (it serves mainly as a reminder of the world and characters), but I hope that the fourth volume will give this engrossing and thought-provoking series the ending it deserves.

Copyright © 2006 David Hebblethwaite

David lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he attempts to make a dent in his collection of unread books. You can read more of David's reviews at his review blog.

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