Dragonhaven

by Robin McKinley

Cover image

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: September 2007
Printing: October 2008
ISBN: 0-441-01643-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 338

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With a title like Dragonhaven from a well-established fantasy author like Robin McKinley, one's first expectations are probably some variety of medieval fantasy, perhaps with a boy or girl who encounters a rare dragon and befriends them. To some extent, those expectations are right: there is a boy, a rare dragon, and a friendship. But they're mostly wrong. Dragonhaven could easily pass for science fiction if one allowed a bit of handwaving, and the setting is contemporary.

Jake is the first-person narrator and the center of this story. He lives with his father and a small group of park rangers and other scientists at Smokehill National Park, one of the few remaining reserves for dragons in the world. McKinley's world is much like ours, with the same politics and governments, except that dragons exist: huge, flying dragons that breathe fire. But they've been hunted to near-extinction, including via an actual war in Australia, and are now dwindling in a small handful of isolated reserves. No one is entirely sure how many are left since, for huge creatures, they're remarkably hard to find and document. The Smokehill staff mostly estimate them from prey kills and other indirect signs.

This book is Jake's telling of his story, and McKinley goes to quite a bit of effort to find the right tone for a teenage boy. It's more verbal than written in style, with lots of capital letters, italics, tangents, digressions, and short sentences. He's also trying to tell the story in order without skipping ahead but sometimes failing, which turns into a mechanism to do foreshadowing as he slips in comments or mentions things he wasn't aware of at the time. The voice McKinley constructs is very strong and makes this book read unlike any other books of hers I've read. How much you enjoy the book will probably depend heavily on your opinion of Jake's storytelling style.

The story proper starts when Jake, on his first overnight trip in the park, encounters a dying dragon and a dead poacher. This is a catastrophe for the park: the dead poacher will provide ammunition for everyone who thinks dragons are too dangerous and should be wiped out. But for Jake, it's a more immediately life-changing event. The dragon was a mother with newborn infants, one of whom has survived and who promptly bonds with Jake.

This may sound like it's moving back into traditional fantasy territory, but it's not. Jake's relationship with Lois (the name he gives the baby dragon) is very unlike fantasy bonds with baby hatchlings and quite a bit like taking care of an actual infant. Except the infant is hot enough to burn the skin. And wants to be in a pouch (McKinley's dragons are marsupial, sort of) and therefore needs to crawl inside Jake's clothing and press against skin. And that's not mentioning the smell. Or the excretions.

The vast majority of the book is concerned with Jake raising Lois, so you'd better be prepared for lots of description of this. Thankfully, Jake is not the sort to describe in gruesome detail (at least most of the time), and some of the description is quite funny. I was particularly fond of his account of the Smell being so intense and overwhelming that it became a third person in the room. But still, it is a lot of pages of, essentially, child-rearing, and I got tired of it before it was over.

Also frustrating is that Jake obviously has never read any science fiction or fantasy. He doesn't even guess at certain aspects of the situation that are immediately obvious to any experienced SFF reader early on. One of those reveals is dragged out until nearly the end of the book. (I'll refrain from spoiling it, but I'll be very surprised if any regular reader of my reviews takes long to pick up on it.) McKinley does a good job with that part of the plot when Jake finally figures out what's going on, but it was still exasperating to have it take so long. Dragonhaven is already somewhat slow-paced due its detailed descriptions of Lois's rearing, and adding an obvious plot element that the protagonist is too dense to figure out makes the pace feel even slower.

About a third of the way into this book, I didn't care for it. It was sort of gross, Lois wasn't very interesting, Jake was more frustrating than entertaining, and nothing was happening. But then it started to win me over, and the last part of the book wasn't bad at all. McKinley's best talent is her ability to mix the fantastic with the quotidian and give them equal weight and importance, to embed the reader so thoroughly with the character that one thinks about all the day-to-day impact of fantastic events that is normally skimmed over in books of this type. If you get engrossed in that angle of Jake and Lois's story, Dragonhaven can be quite enjoyable. When you're waiting for the plot to advance, it's a bit painful.

Probably the best thing to do with this book, if you can, is read the first chapter or so and see what you think of Jake's voice. If you enjoy reading it, that's probably a good sign for the rest of the book. I do like McKinley's dragons: she avoids the traps of both making them too human and making them too much like animals, and manages to give Lois (once she's a bit older) a sort of intelligence that's inhuman but still canny and clearly sharper than a dog's. You'll likely get tired, as I did, of Jake's omnipresent headache and Lois's endless upbringing, but there is a payoff in the end.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-12-28

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21