I’m sure I heard about this book when it first came out, but somehow, my library didn’t buy it (I’ve since requested that we do so) and we can’t interloan new books… so I forgot about it, until, once again, Charlotte wrote about the sequel.
The Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse.
As the book says on the cover, this is a story of Beowulf. Specifically, it’s the story at the end of the epic poem, when Beowulf is an aged king, and a dragon comes and disrupts the peace. At the beginning of the story, we see a baby wash up to shore in a boat with a dead man, formally and properly laid out. Though there is some dissention from those who think the baby an offering who should be left to the gods, the old woman Amma takes and raises him. Fast forward sixteen years, and young Rune, called so for the rune on the necklace he came with, is living in a hut on a farm with Amma, with a foster father and two unkind stepbrothers in a house nearby. In the summers he helps on the farm, while Amma sings him ballads of kings and of Peaceweavers, noblewomen sent to marry into another tribe and make peace between them. Only in the winters is he allowed to join the other town boys in sword training, which of course puts him at a permanent disadvantage. Even though he’s close to the right age, he isn’t one of King Beowulf’s official warriors. One evening on the mountain, chasing after a runaway goat, Rune meets a stranger hiding a gold cup, who recognizes the rune. While Rune is still on the mountain, the dragon makes its first pass, burning farms, people, and even the king’s Golden Hall. Burning with desire to avenge Amma’s death, Rune sets off on his own to slay the dragon. Though he fails, he learns where the dragon’s cave is, and so comes along on the next, official expedition with Beowulf and his best warriors. Can even King Beowulf defeat a beast whose very presence strikes terror into the hearts of the bravest warrior? And (just supposing here that they actually succeed in killing the dragon), Rune might just find that the hardest part comes afterward. A country whose houses and crops have been burned down and which is surrounded by hostile nations isn’t exactly in the clear, even without a dragon.
I’d really like some of my friends who specialize in Viking to read this for their opinion, but from my point of view, this is bang-up historical fantasy. I didn’t notice any jarring anachronisms either in the setting or, as happens even more often, in the main character’s mindset. That can work in some cases – the Jacky Faber books, for example, which are aiming at adventure more than historical accuracy. Still, the kind of attention to detail found here is a joy. There are no potatoes, velvet, spinning wheels, people saying “hello” or believing in their heart of hearts that slavery is wrong and women are oppressed, to name just a few of the anachronisms that I regularly see in historical fiction. (Though Barnhouse, in her notes, says that it isn’t entirely accurate, incorporating bits of Anglo-Saxon culture from a few centuries later.) Even though this is fantasy from a modern point of view, it’s a book that feels like it isn’t fantasy from the point of view of people of the same time from our world. They call for help from the gods, and are encouraged when they see ravens or goats with two-color eyes, r animals beloved of their gods. Everyone has lost people they love, due to war or the dragon or other causes, and this also felt realistically dealt with: lots of pain, and yet life has to go on. One of the reviewers on Amazon complained that Rune lacks self-confidence through the whole book: shouldn’t he start believing in himself at some point? And I would say, why should he? He starts the book as one of the unpopular kids, and getting thrown into a position of power doesn’t stop him from realizing that he’s young for what he’s got to do, and any mistakes he makes would have dire consequences. Really, I find this attitude both believable and much easier to get along with in a protagonist than, say, Eragon, whose unearned self-confidence struck me as arrogant.
At the very end of the book, we meet Hild, sent to Rune’s tribe as a Peaceweaver. She is the heroine in her own right of Peaceweaver, which came out this year. I don’t have time to give it a full review, but it starts and ends at the same point as The Coming of the Dragon, and I enjoyed it hugely as well. More, please!
For some reason, the first of these two books was billed as middle grade fiction, and the second as teen – um, thinking about it, probably because Rune doesn’t kill any people himself, while Hild accidentally kills a would-be murderer. Overall, though, no sex, and what felt like similar amounts of violence with thoughtful reflections on the effects and limitations of using weapons for conflict resolution.