Saturday, April 12, 2008

Jane Yolen

Dragon's Blood
by Jane Yolen
Recommended Age: 14+

This is the first novel in the Pit Dragon Trilogy that continues with Heart's Blood. The author has also written a Young Merlin Trilogy and a Tartan Magic trilogy, as well as a stand-alone book entitled Briar Rose. [EDIT: All of these are on my "getting around to it" lit list.]

Picture the planet Austar IV, a dry forbidding world, and at one time a penal colony. One of the things mankind found on this nasty ball of sand and rock was a nearly extinct species - real dragons. And through breeding and training, the species has been revived - and a new form of popular entertainment, pit fighting and the gambling industry that surrounds it, has become the basis of a whole planet's economy.

Today (assuming "today" is sometime in the 26th century) it is a Protectorate, neither a full member of the Galactic Federation nor an independent world. Besides the pits andthe baggeries (don't ask) and the stew-shops, pretty much the rest of the planet is given over to dragon farms where the big, hot-blooded, winged worms are carefully bred, trained, and cared for.

Another holdover from the old days of the penal colony is the distinction between bond and free. Only now it is a more fluid distinction. Everyone who is "in bond" wears a bag around his neck, and when that little bag is filled with coins, he can buy his freedom and become a "master" himself.

One such bondboy is Jakkin, who works on a dragon farm belonging to one of the great dragon breeders of the time, Sarkkhan. Jakkin's ambition is to steal a dragon's egg (which isn't technically wrong, since very few of the eggs actually have a baby dragon in them), raise and train his own dragon, and enter it in the pits so he can buy his freedom and become his own man.

But this is complicated. It means sneaking around in the dead of night, covering up his tracks in the sand lest others find the oasis where his "snatchling" lives, finding food for the little beast, and figuring out how to turn a wild baby dragon into a trained fighter. It helps that he can communicate with it telepathically. But what doesn't help is that a girl named Akki, who stirs confusing desires in Jakkin, also knows his secret. Or that a sharp-eyed, really really mean old trainer has a grudge against him. Or that there are other winged lizards besides dragons, who would like to have his precious snatchling for breakfast...

This is an exciting and colorful fantasy tale with a charismatic young hero who could give Harry Potter a run for his money. BUT I think this book falls more in the category of "young adults" than "children's literature." Be advised: there is some mild sexual content, and the story also depicts drug use and somewhat graphic violence.

Heart's Blood
by Jane Yolen
Recommended Age: 14+

This is the middle book of the Pit Dragon Trilogy, that begins with Dragon's Blood and concludes with A Sending of Dragons.

Jakkin has become a free man and a dragon-master in his own right, by a combination of talent and ambitious hard work. In Dragon's Blood he stole a baby dragon from his master, Sarkkhan, and trained her up to be a promising young pit-fighter named Heart's Blood. Now he works for his former master but has a barn and a dragon and even a bondman of his own. Everything he wanted has come his way, but there is still trouble afoot.

At first, it is trouble with his bondman, Errikkin, who does not share Jakkin's attitude that the only proper thing to do with an empty bond bag is to fill it and become a free man. But soon enough, more serious trouble comes in the form of a Senator named Golden, who wants Jakkin to turn spy and infiltrate a rebel movement.

Jakkin has a head full of dragons. Nothing in the world could interest him in politics, unless they threatened his work with dragons. Nothing except Akki, the estranged daughter of Sarkkhan, who makes Jakkin feel all gooshy inside. And Golden says she has disappeared. Akki was last seen trying to infiltrate a rebel cell in the great city of Rokk. And she needs Jakkin - if he is man enough for the job - to get her out again.

So you just go to the big city, look like you're lost, get yourself invited to a rebel cell, pretend to sympathize with their cause, and run away with the girl at the first chance... right? It couldn't be so simple! For mixed up in all this is the excitement and triumph and heartbreak of being a dragon-trainer, coaching the great beasts through fights in the Rokk Major Pit. And then there's the confusing question of who is using whom for what, as Jakkin quickly finds it difficult to decide where his loyalties should lie: With Golden, who uses people and throws them away? Or with the rebels themselves, whose cell leader seems to be comfortable with the idea of killing people to make his point?

I won't hide from you that this story comes to a pretty tragic ending. You can see from a long way off, though, that it pretty much has to. But at the very end is a wonderfully unexpected twist that will make you very interested to know what happens in the third part of the trilogy.

A Sending of Dragons
by Jane Yolen
Recommended Age: 14+

The third book in the Pit Dragon Trilogy finds young dragon-master Jakkin and his beloved Akki living desperate lives as refugees in the mountains, haunted by grief, pursued by searching choppers, and befriended by the five hatchlings of the late Heart's Blood.

I hate having to say those last three words. But what that death made possible was a new kind of human being that can live in the cold temperatures of the Austarian night, and can see with dragons' eyes and speak mind-to-mind as dragons do.

But apparently, Jakkin and Akki aren't the first people to discover this weird change. Soon they stumble upon a mountain enclave of silent, grim people who, generation after generation, have communicated only in thoughts. They have other secrets too, secrets that would change life for every soul on Austar IV... and secrets, holy mysteries even, that make Jakkin's blood run cold.

Soon escaping from these people of the mountain becomes more important to Jakkin and Akki even than escaping from the long arm of the law. But they dare not escape alone. At least one dragon must be saved from the horrible fate that awaits her in the bloody rituals of a tribe that has become both more than human and less than human at the same time.

This is a dark, forboding story full of suspense and terror, yet at the same time a story of hope and wonder. It combines one of the creepiest depictions of religious ritual found in recent young-readers' literature with a healthy dose of humor, companionship, and romance. And it brings the saga begun in Dragon's Blood and Heart's Blood to a satisfying end.

The Wizard of Washington Square
by Jane Yolen
Recommended Age: 10+

David and his terrier, D. Dog, have only lived in New York City for a week when they go for a walk in Washington Square Park. David is feeling lonely and bored until he meets Leila, a girl his age who still believes in things like wizards. Grudgingly, David goes along with Leila on an adventure to discover the little, forgetful, second-class wizard who lives under the fountain in Washington Square.

The adventure soon takes a turn that goes right to David’s heart. In a bit of unexpected magic, the wizard accidentally turns D. Dog into a marble statue, which is promptly swiped by a greedy antiques dealer. Getting D. Dog back means relying on his new friends, including a frisky walking table and a touchy tapestry that shows stories in its threads. By letting the sad, silly wizard help him, David, in turn, helps the wizard to save his floundering career.

In this slim, adventure-packed book, the world of magic collides with the modern world in a sweetly funny, down-to-earth way. If you’re having one of those dreary, dull, depressing days with nothing to do and no one to do it with, why not pick up this book? You may make some new friends!

Troll Bridge
by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple
Recommended Age: 14+

This book is actually the second “Rock’n’Roll Fairy Tale” by the mother-son team of Yolen, the accomplished fantasy writer, and Stemple, a musician, producer, and author. But since I haven’t run across their first book, Pay the Piper, Troll Bridge is the “first for me.” Set in present-day Minnesota, it combines the fairy tales of “Three Billy Goats Gruff” and “Twelve Dancing Princesses” with some Scandinavian troll-lore and a goodly sprinkling of rock’n’roll lyrics.

Moira Darr is a musical prodigy. At 16 she plays harp with the Minnesota Orchestra and has also been named one of the year’s twelve “dairy princesses,” whose likeness, carved in butter, would traditionally be left on an old stone bridge north of Duluth, near one of the earliest Norwegian settlements in the state. This year, however, the local mayor refuses to let this happen, with the unexpected result that the town breaks its age-long bargain with a troll named Aenmarr. So Aenmarr kidnaps the twelve princesses and takes them to his home, Trollholm, in a kind of alternate reality near the bridge. He intends the princesses as brides for his three sons. His other captives – including the three Griffson brothers of boy-band fame – are meant for food.

Somehow, Moira escapes the enchanted sleep that befalls the other 11 princesses, and along with the Griffson boys tries to find a way out of Trollholm. Their only ally is a talking fox named Fossegrim, who claims to be a musician enchanted into animal form. Fossegrim swears that their only means of escape is to get his magic fiddle back from Aenmarr. But Fossegrim has his own agenda, and he cannot be trusted. Caught between a dangerous enchanter and a family of man-eating trolls, Moira and the Griffsons have some tough choices ahead of them...and, in the meantime, they do a lot of singing and song-writing. (Don’t worry, it actually serves the plot.)

If your fantasy is to be a beauty queen or a rock star, this may be your kind of fantasy novel. Charged with hipness, rockitude, and teen heartthrob appeal, it also dusts off an old favorite fairy tale and gives it a sparkling new shine. It may not be the most unforgettable book you’ll read this summer, but it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon!

EDIT: In her long and prolific writing career, Yolen has also written a series on Young [Greek] Heroes (co-written by Robert J. Harris, who also collaborated with her on several historical novels); children's series featuring a little witch girl, a family of giants, a pig butler, and a robot; literally dozens of picture books, short story collections, and stand-alone novels, including The Transfigured Hart, The Boy Who Spoke Chimp, The Devil's Arithmetic, and Sword of the Rightful King. Yolen has also edited many anthologies featuring magic, monsters, aliens, ghosts, Robin Hood, King Arthur, and cats. I don't have room even to begin to name them. Fantastic Fiction credits her with 262 books!

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