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The Dragon-Charmer
Jan Siegel
HarperCollins Voyager, 346 pages

The Dragon-Charmer
Jan Siegel
Jan Siegel has already lived through one lifetime, during which she travelled the world and supported herself through a variety of professions, including that of actress, barmaid, garage hand, laboratory assistant, journalist, and model. Her new life is devoted to her writing, but she also finds time to ride, ski, and attend the opera. She's also the author of Prospero's Children, her debut novel.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Prospero's Children
Interview with Jan Siegel
PDF download of excerpt from The Dragon-Charmer

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Jan Siegel continues the series begun in Prospero's Children in this second novel.

Years have passed since the events of the previous book, which plunged sixteen-year-old Fernanda Capel into a world of magic, awakening her to her own powerful Gift and taking her back in time to the magic's source, the doomed city of Atlantis. Unable to bear the pain of losing that world and the love she found there, Fern has devoted her life to repressing her memories and stifling her Gift. Now she's about to get married, to a man she thinks can give her the normal life she so desperately wants to lead. It hardly seems to matter that she doesn't love him.

But though Fern denies her Gift, its strength draws others to her, including the sorceresses Morgus and Sysselore. These ancient, evil crones dwell outside of time beneath the Tree of Life and Death, whose branches support the earth and whose roots penetrate the underworld, and whose fruit is the heads of the dead, growing and ripening in a kind of half-life that marks a way station between real life and the finality of death. On the eve of Fern's wedding, Morgus kidnaps Fern's soul and brings it to the Tree, intending to train Fern's Gift and then join it to hers and Sysselore's, in order to make a gateway back into the world of time.

Her spirit held prisoner, Fern's body lies in a coma, watched over by her brother Will, her best friend Gaynor, and her companions from years ago, the former wizard Ragginbone and Lougarry, a wolf who was once human. But there's a new threat to contend with: Azmordis, the Oldest Spirit, whom Fern confronted in Atlantis, has found a way to possess a descendant of a long line of dragon-charmers. A single dragon remains, and if Azmordis can control it he will be invincible. As Azmordis draws Will and Gaynor into danger, Fern's struggle to free herself becomes more desperate -- for now she must not only thwart Morgus's plans, but find a way to defeat Azmordis.

I was strongly reminded, reading this book, of Alan Garner's The Owl Service -- not because of any resemblance of plot or character (though intriguingly, an owl plays an important role, and there's a mention of the Welsh legend on which Garner's novel is based), but because of the seamless manner in which Siegel joins the supernatural to the world of everyday. In her fiction, as in Garner's, there's a sense of the mundane world as a veil, against which the supernatural presses -- sometimes only straining the separation, but occasionally breaking through. Many books that deal with the intrusion of the paranormal into the ordinary treat the intrusion as a freak, something that's either against nature or the revelation of a larger and more important reality. But in Siegel's work, the supernatural isn't worse or better or more true than the everyday, but simply one half of a natural whole. It's those Gifted people who can perceive both who understand the world most truly.

Siegel's plot isn't particularly innovative -- capture, escape, friends in peril, the consuming evil that must be defeated -- and the two storylines (Fern's kidnapping by Morgus, Azmordis' possession of the dragon-charmer's descendant) don't actually have a great deal to do with one another. But the originality of the fantasy elements (drawn from a wide variety of mythic and folkloric sources; Siegel's erudition is apparent in the end notes, where she explains the derivation of some of the names she uses), the depth of the characterizations, and the strength of the writing elevate the rather stock plot well above the ordinary, and tie the disparate narratives together. As in the previous book, there's some trouble with structure -- the story starts too slowly, with an unnecessary prologue to connect the young Fern of Prospero's Children with the older Fern of The Dragon-Charmer, and a rather confusing chapter from Morgus's point of view; and the section that leads up to Fern's kidnapping is much less strong than the breathtakingly surreal, gorgeously-written account of Fern's captivity beneath the Tree of Life and Death, and the chillingly suspenseful confrontation with Azmordis that follows. This unevenness, though, doesn't substantially detract from what is, overall, a really compelling novel.

Like its predecessor, The Dragon-Charmer stands very well alone, even though it's the middle installment of a trilogy. There will be a third book to complete the series: The Renaissance of a Witch. I'll be looking forward to it.

Copyright © 2002 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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