This was on the Cybils middle-grade sf/f shortlist (though my library shelves it in teen.) It’s the next-to-last book for me to read on that list, and I finished the last one, The One and Only Ivan, yesterday.
The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde.
Fforde is the author of the Thursday Next books, beginning with The Eyre Affair, which I have very much enjoyed. This is his first book for kids. Jennifer Strange, 15-year-old indentured foundling, runs Kazam Mystical Arts Management in the absence of its owner. In the old days, magic was plentiful and strong, and people lived in fear of dragons. Now, though, magic is hard to come by, and the proper forms must be filled out before performing any spells. Those gifted in the mystical arts are reduced to using magic to clean drains and rewire houses, while magic carpets are used for pizza delivery. Even those jobs are getting harder and harder to come by as magic dries up and drain cleaner becomes cheaper than magic. And then things change. Generations ago, the wizard the Mighty Shandar created the Dragonlands and set up the treaty that would keep humans and dragons separated, as well as establishing a Dragonslayer to enforce the treaty on both sides. Now, there are sudden surges of magic and multiple people having dreams and visions of Big Magic. They say that the last dragon is about to die, and that the last Dragonslayer will be the one to kill him. But when Jennifer finds out that she is the Last Dragonslayer, she doesn’t want to help the large corporations who are greedy to claim the Dragonlands for their own, and she especially doesn’t want to rush in and kill an aged dragon who’s never broken the treaty and who seems ready to die of old age anyway. Something must be done, and it’s up to Jennifer Strange, her fearsome pet Quarkbeast, and her new assistant and fellow foundling Tiger Prawns to figure out what.
It was oddly jarring to read this directly after The Diviners. I hate to say it when I am a fan of Fforde, but his characters did not seem as well-rounded and believable as Bray’s. Jennifer is a likeable character, but she didn’t feel that different from Thursday Next in my head. Where Fforde really excels is his world building and writing style, filled with hundreds of quirky details and turns of phrase that beg to be read aloud (my family were forced to listen to many of these as I read this over breakfast. ) Things like this:
“Working with those versed in the Mystical Arts was sometimes like trying to knit with wet spaghetti: just when you thought you’d gotten somewhere, it all came to pieces in your hands. But I didn’t really mind. Were they frustrating? Frequently. Were they boring? Never.” (p2-3)
“We’re on an economy drive. Instead of an enchanted cookie tin that’s always full, we’ve got an enchanted cookie tin with always only two left. You’d be amazed at how much wizidrical energy we save.” (p 36)
And from the same page,
“[T]he Remarkable Kevin Zipp… looked like an accountant on his way to a costume party as a vagrant.”
It’s a world that manages to be both depressing and chipper, with lots and lots of children left as foundlings when their parents were killed in the Troll Wars and then left to work as indentured servants, education optional; the fading magic; the setting of the Ununited Kingdom filled with tiny kingdoms squabbling over territory. Fforde is so good at putting a clever, amusing twist on everything, and our foundling characters consider themselves fortunate to be where they are (maybe the current dragon dilemma excepted) that the book doesn’t feel dark despite all the unpleasant elements. Mixed in with the humor are Jennifer’s thoughts on capitalism and what it means to be willing to kill other sentient beings merely because they are in the way. It all comes together in a satisfyingly grand conclusion, with the plot wrapping up nicely despite this being the first in the series. Even if I didn’t find the characters quite as memorable as some others, there’s so much to love about The Last Dragonslayer. It’s exciting and funny without being fluffy, and the combination of action with both female and male protagonists makes it one that will appeal to both genders. It’s good for older middle grade students and up. The next book in the series, The Song of the Quarkbeast, was published in England in 2011 and will be out in the U.S. in September 2013.