Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sherryl Jordan

The Hunting of the Last Dragon
by Sherryl Jordan
Recommended Age: 12+

Set in the West of England, A.D. 1356, this is the tale from the twilight of the Middle Ages, when dragons were passing from the realm of live superstition to fanciful folk-tales, when the bubonic plague was a fresh and painful memory, and when the idea of an educated populace reading mass quanitites of books in English was still but the dream of an ambitious abbot whose monks copied books by hand with goose-feather quills and parchment.

One of those monks is assigned the task of recording the first-hand account of Jude of Doran, a swineherd's son who, by chance alone, survives the destruction of his village and family by the last, late-blooming dragon. Now, don't go running away with the idea that Jude immediately swears revenge and valiantly goes forth to slay the worm. Actually, Jude spends most of the book struggling with his terror, grief, and self-hatred, while also learning to love a beautiful woman from a faraway land.

Jing-Wei, lately known as Lizzie Little-foot, is a daughter of Chinese nobility who was shipwrecked on an English shore. Brought up by gypsies and later kept in a cage as a freak for a traveling show, her plight touches a place in Jude's heart...or perhaps it's just that she reminds him of his dead sister. Together with an ancient crone who may or may not be a witch, Jing-Wei teaches Jude to find the courage within himself to face the dragon that killed his family, and more importantly, to slay the dragon within himself. She teaches him that knowledge is strength, that fear is having faith in your enemy, and that true love is its own kind of courage. And she shows him a very novel method of destroying a very nasty beast.

Part love story, part gripping adventure, part meditation on the role of women in medieval China and of minorities in medieval England, part amazing fantasy that combines history and fantasy with astounding ease, this is a dragonslayer tale of rare simplicity and effortless beauty. I think most who read it will enjoy it; some, indeed, will treasure it.

The Raging Quiet
by Sherryl Jordan
Recommended Age: 15+

The New Zealand-based author of The Hunting of the Last Dragon has created a medieval fantasy about a young woman who discovers that "being different" can be the unforgivable sin.

After only two miserable days of marriage to the middle son of her parents' feudal landlord, Marnie Isherwood becomes a widow in a tiny, unkempt cottage near a strange, unfriendly village. Her only friends are the village priest and the local "mad boy," whose name Marnie changes from Raver to Raven. Soon Marnie realizes that Raven is deaf, not mad. She invents a language of hand-signs to communicate with him, penetrating his world of anguish and confusion, and showing him compassion where he has only known cruelty.

But the local people don't take kindly to Marnie. For a variety of stupid, superstitious reasons - not least of which is the malice of a brother-in-law who wants to evict her from the cottage - Marnie is branded as a witch. And her sign-language with Raven is interpreted as some kind of spell-weaving. The result is a drama of gripping intensity, combined with a gentle love story, a low-key mystery, and an exploration of the unexpected ways in which good and evil manifest themselves.

If I have one bone to pick with this novel, it is that Marnie's self-possessed nature - which makes her such a wonderful character - is out of step with the age in which her tale is set. But according to the author's note at the end of the story, the characters of Marnie and Raven are what made the story happen, and the choice of a fantasy-medieval setting came later, because it almost seemed a shame to spoil the purity of the story with extraneous historical details. Maybe this is an insight into how some of the best fantasy stories are written.

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