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Dragonhaven
Robin McKinley
Putnam, 272 pages

Dragonhaven
Robin McKinley
Robin McKinley was born in 1952 in Warren, Ohio. She attended Dickinson College and graduated summa cum laude from Bowdoin College. In 1978, her first novel, Beauty, was accepted on its first submission. She lives in Hampshire, England, along with her writer husband, Peter Dickinson, and three whippets. Besides five novels and two collections, Robin McKinley has had two children's picture books published: My Father is in the Navy and Rowan.

Robin McKinley Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Sunshine
SF Site Review: The Stone Fey
SF Site Review: Rose Daughter
SF Site Review: Rose Daughter

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

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The book is a first-person narrative by Jake Mendoza, who lives at the Makepeace Institute of Integrated Dragon Studies in Smokehill National Park. Smokehill is the millions-of-acres preserve for about two hundred of the few remaining draco australiensis, which are on the endangered list.

The story begins when Jake is fourteen, and at first the reader might assume that he's writing of very recent events. Jake reminds the reader repeatedly that the idea of a preserve for dragons is a fairly tense controversy. Some, including in the government, insist that dragons are dangerous, expensive, and should be wiped out. Environmentalists, scientists, and dragon-lovers remind everyone that there are no records of them eating humans, even though they're a hundred feet long, fly, and breathe fire.

But then a man is killed in the dragon preserve.

On his first overnight solo hike, Jake finds a dragon dying next to the human she killed. Jake realizes this news could destroy Smokehill -- even though the dead man is surrounded by an arsenal of weaponry, making it clear even to Jake that he was a sport hunter who had attacked the dragon first. The fact that he was there illegally, for no good purpose, is forgotten in the resulting media feeding frenzy as the man turns out to have come from a rich, influential family -- rich enough to support the habit of seeking ever more exotic creatures to hunt and kill just for sport.

So Jake and the others at Smokehill have to keep the secret of the first-ever-seen baby dragon. This is a tremendous challenge for Jake: how can you keep secret a creature whose habits are utterly alien, yet it regards you as its mom? Especially when weird things start happening inside your brain?

Robin McKinley has build an admirable career on taking familiar fairy tale tropes, or long-loved stories, and skillfully combining the architecture of wonder with convincing realistic detail so that the reader feels she can live inside the story. McKinley has never settled for doing the same thing over and over, but with each new book has experimented with voice, form, tone, as well as character and plot. Most of her work is read and reread to pieces by her fans -- including the writer of this review.

That said, I think some readers might find Dragonhaven problematic. A lot of that has to do with the narrative voice. The immediacy, the tone, the word choices, make it seem that the protagonist is a teen -- but we find out that he isn't as close to events as at first surmised by the time he writes the story. That actually would explain why at times the voice seemed to falter: I found it odd, for example, to find a fourteen-year-old boy saying "Humans are perverse. You may have noticed." What kid of twelve to fourteen really knows what perverse is, much less defines the world that way? Or "Grace is a saint." I've never heard a boy, even a member of a religious community (which Jake isn't) using that term about an adult. Mainly, though, the problem seems to be that so much of the story is Jake's opinion, as opposed to straight narrative. Opinion holds the other characters at a distance as well as the action; the reader has to find the story behind Jake and his thoughts on every subject.

The story, when it does take center stage, is powerful, absorbing, and exquisitely rendered. McKinley makes those dragons real. Days after putting the book down, I still half-believe those creatures are flying somewhere south of Highway 40, and if I drive enough back roads behind the great national parks, I might catch a glimpse of one.

In short, if you like a leisurely, chatty style, this book will have instant appeal. If you like more narrative and less opinion about the action, you might consider beginning at the second chapter, and coming back to the first later. But do stay with Jake until he goes on that overnight. Those scenes with the dragons are McKinley at her very best.

Copyright © 2007 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


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