Fantasy Literature

Dragons for Young People, Part Three: Eon

Eon book cover art

Image borrowed from http://www.alisongoodman.com.

For those of you who still come back to read these posts despite my lengthy absences over the last year, thank you! July and August merged together into a crazy journey consisting of a cross-country road trip to a classical teacher’s conference, a week with relatives while teaching a first grade Vacation Bible School class, a freelance ghostwriting project, and preparations for the classes I teach, which start up again on Monday. It has been a load, but a fun one!

I read Eon while staying with my relatives a month ago. I have a cousin who loves fantasy books and dragons, so it was on her shelf that I found this YA novel by Alison Goldman. I had thought that Seraphina would be the best YA dragon book addressed in this blog series, but I just might have been wrong—I finished Eon within a couple of days and snagged Eona, the sequel, to borrow when I returned home. With the ghostwriting and school prep, I still haven’t read it, but I’m excited to see whether it soars or flops as the next chapter of the story. Without further ado, though, here are the top 3’s of Eon:

 

Top 3 Stereotypes

1.  The secret that would prove deadly if discovered

Just like Seraphina, Eon has a secret: the back of the book reveals this one, so it’s no spoiler to say that the young boy Eon is actually a girl (Eona) in disguise. It is forbidden for females to become Dragoneyes (individuals who bond with one of the twelve energy dragons to represent them and share in their power), so only one or two servants and the master who is training her know her true identity. If she is discovered, she will likely be killed.

2. The commoner who falls in with royalty

This stereotype harkens back to both Seraphina and Dragon Slippers. Eon(a) once worked as a slave in a salt mine, but by the time this book reaches full swing, she suddenly becomes a favored member of the royal court and a friend to the emperor’s heir. All this happens just because her master found and trained her to become a Dragoneye—a decision on his part that I don’t remember ever learning the reasoning behind.

3. The youth with a powerful, unheard-of ability

Many stories for young readers wouldn’t exist if the main character wasn’t able to do something that set them apart—something that nobody else could do. In the case of Eon, Eon(a) has the ability to see all eleven of the lesser energy dragons. The dragons don’t exist in the physical realm, so only the individuals specifically bonded to each one can see that dragon. However, even before Eon(a) bonds unexpectedly with the red Mirror Dragon (who used to rule over the other dragons but has been missing for hundreds of years), she can see all of the dragons and is able to communicate with the Rat Dragon in particular. It’s a lot of unexplained power for one sixteen-year-old girl to have.

 

Top 3 Unique Points

1.  A refreshingly fresh take on sexuality

This was by far my favorite aspect of Goodman’s book. Many young adult stories of a girl in a man’s world put across one of two stereotypical worldviews: (1) that women are really the same as men and can do whatever men can do or (2) that women are out-and-out better than men. At first, I was afraid that Eon was telling a tale that would focus on the first stereotype. It was, after all, about a girl attempting to break into a male-only role. However, as the story progresses, Eon learns to accept her real identity as Eona and to quit denying her feminine side—not because it is “just as good as” or “better than”  masculinity, but because her gender has an important, unique function to fulfill in the power balance. The important roles of several eunuchs and a transgender “lady” of the court also open up deeper questions of what it really means to be male or female in a way that gently prompts thought without casting a judgment in any particular direction.

2. The unique Eastern setting

I’m happy whenever I find a fantasy book that doesn’t take place in a stereotypically Tolkien, Rowling, Lewis, or Paolini-esque world, and Eon made me happy in this regard. Goodman’s novel takes place in a land reminiscent of ancient China yet completely comfortable and almost familiar to me as a Western reader. She uses the ideas of zodiac-like dragons, martial arts-like fighting, sun (male)/moon (female) balance, symbol-writing, and an emperor’s court and harem in a world that somehow does not feel sharply foreign and strange like some authors’ attempts at Eastern tales. This land, with its political intrigue, social system, and Dragoneye lords, was quite believable and readable to me as a reader. I’m interested to see how she expands on it in Eona.

3. The elusive sense of something done right

I just can’t put my finger on what it is, but something about this book clicks. Is it the well-rounded, believable characters and the realistically messy relationships between them? Is it the world where there are enough complexities and details to make it seem real and alive without including the extra side plots, character information, or confusing twists that make books vague and unclear? Is it the first-person voice that gives us insight into Eon(a)’s mind and character while painting a clear, compelling, and easy-to-read picture of the world around her?  Whatever it is, I have to applaud Alison Goodman for a book done well.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Eon is a book that I absolutely recommend. It’s more for teens (or adults who enjoy reading good books about teens) than for younger children, but I think that anyone could read and enjoy it. If you live in the UK, note that you may find this book published under the title The Two Pearls of Wisdom or Eon: Rise of the Dragoneye. The first chapter is available to read on Alison Goodman’s site at http://www.alisongoodman.com.au/e.html.  If you have already read this book, I would love to hear if you enjoyed it as much as I did and can shed light on what that elusive “something” is that makes this book hit the spot!

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Dragons for Young People, Part Two: Seraphina

Seraphina book cover

Book cover art borrowed from Wikipedia.com.

Last summer, I read review after review that sang the praises of Rachel Hartman’s debut novel, Seraphina. I finally got my hands on it last month, and it was a great read. Just like my last post, here are the ups and downs:

 

Top 3 Stereotypes

1.       The commoner who falls in with royalty
Recognize this stereotype from Dragon Slippers? It’s back! To be fair, Seraphina is slightly more than a commoner. Her father has worked his way up to become the top expert on the dragon-human treaty, a position that helped him get his daughter into a comfortable job with a famous musician. Still, Seraphina does a lot more than teach the young princess her music lessons. She serves as a friend to the girl, and even befriends (and falls in love with—big surprise there…) the princess’s cousin and intended fiancé, Prince Lucian Kiggs. They trust her enough to let her be a part of the plans that save the day, even after they find out her terrible secret.

2.       The secret that would prove deadly if discovered
Yes, Seraphina has a secret. In a book about a girl with an unbelievable gift in a world where dragons take human form, it’s not too hard to guess what that secret is. In her novel, Hartman uses a common plot device that adds tension to many stories: both humans and dragons would kill Seraphina if the truth came out. She is conveniently stuck in the middle, where young readers will feel for her and desperately want her to be accepted as she is.

3.       The treaty on the verge of collapse
Treaties never work out well in fantasy stories. After all, where would the story be if they did? Seraphina contains the age-old tale of a human-dragon treaty about to go wrong (this is another similarity to Dragon Slippers). As is the case in many dragon tales, humans and dragons don’t get along so well, and there are those on both sides who want war. Naturally, it’s up to a young heroine to jump in and save the day—but that’s another stereotype in and of itself, so I won’t go there.

 

Top 3 Unique Points

1.       Music as a theme
Rachel Hartman worked more complex themes into Seraphina than many writers do when writing fantasy stories for youth.  One of the most beautiful things that she did with Seraphina was to weave the theme of music into the story. From Seraphina’s special talent to the songs of the characters in her mental garden, the book is full of different music styles that enrich both the culture and the storyline in the novel.

2.       A mental garden
When Seraphina first started having strange visions, a distinct set of characters would appear and take turns pulling her into their worlds. She doesn’t figure out who they are until well into the book, yet she manages to organize the mental chaos by arranging her mind’s visitors into an imaginary garden.  Due to the nature of those characters, I found her ability to organize them unique and fascinating. Keeping with the book’s music theme, it almost seems as though she has composed a piece of music where each character must play their part.

3.       Science instead of magic
This is becoming a little more common in books today, but I still appreciated reading a fantasy story that doesn’t assume magic. The morphing of dragons into human forms, the communication devices that dragons use, and the musical machines and masterpieces created by the humans are all scientific in design. If sentient dragons existed in our world, it would not be jarring to find the culture of Seraphina fitting in nicely.

Overall, Seraphina was a great book. It did have its share of stereotypes, but if I had read this book when I was going through my first dragon phase, it would have become a fast favorite. As it is, I’m looking forward to the eventual sequel. I’m hoping the unique story and lovely writing style are just as good in the next installment!

Categories: Children's, Fantasy Literature | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dragons for Young People, Part One: Dragon Slippers

Dragon Slippers cover image

Image borrowed from Goodreads.com.

This latest blog series all started when a reader recommended Jessica Day George’s Dragon Slippers as one of their favorites. I’d like to say I promptly ran off the library and picked it up, but in reality, it took a couple of months (and the book sat waiting on my dresser until it was all but overdue) before I read it. When I finally got to it, though, it proved a quick, pleasant read. Its sequel now sits waiting much like the first did.  I’ll let its top stereotypes and unique points speak for the rest of it:


Top 3 Stereotypes

1.       The country orphan trying to make her way in the big city

The main character, Creel, grew up with country relatives after her parents died, but now is where so many young fantasy heroes and heroines find themselves: all alone in the big city with not a penny nor a friend to her name. Creel is there intentionally, to chase her dream of eventually opening a shop that features the gorgeous embroidery she learned from her mother. In the meantime, she’s stuck with a harsh mistress and some girls who range from rivals to friends.

2.       The commoner who falls in with royalty

If the first point didn’t already make this obvious, Creel is a nobody, as far as any social system is concerned. She is an orphan, an apprentice that is hardly more than a servant… and yet remarkably quickly, she becomes a friend to the young prince (and an enemy to a young princess). This seems a favorite theme of children’s books—young main characters almost always fall in with people who are more important than the sort that they seem likely to meet.

3.       The coincidental stumbling upon the main plot device

In so many books, there’s no feasible reason for why the main character chances upon the right thing at the right place and time to allow the story to happen. To be fair, some of the best stories in real life do happen when the unlikely happens, but in books, it’s treated like an everyday occurrence. In Dragon Slippers, the dragon slippers themselves are the coincidental plot device. In a huge room full of shoes, Cree finds, chooses, and has the right size feet for the slippers that are an important clue in the human-dragon relations of the story and are so crucial to the plot.

 

Top 3 Unique Points

1. The varied dragon hoards

These dragons don’t just collect valuable things—each has its own perceived treasure. One collects shoes, another dogs, and another stained-glass windows. I loved this aspect of the book. It gave the dragons an opportunity to stand out as quirky individuals instead of stereotypical gold-hoarders.

2.       The idea of being sacrificed to a dragon as a financial aid

Creel’s aunt and uncle, who raised her, are not rich, and so the aunt comes up with a crazy scheme: if they send Creel up into the hills to be caught by a nearby dragon, she can be rescued and married by a rich nobleman and share her new fortunes with her family. The idea is probably unique for good reason (no character in their right mind ought to suggest such a thing!) but the entertainingly awkward situation it creates is a great start to the story.

3.       An intelligent bratty princess

How often is the evil antagonist the same character as the annoyingly spiteful little princess? Not only does the future queen-to-be have a whiny, irrational side, she also has a side that is smart enough to concoct a great deal of trouble. The extend of her scheming was quite surprising, but that’s all I’ll say for now.

Was Dragon Slippers full of stereotypes? Certainly. Did that make it not worth reading? Absolutely not. Some of those stereotypes are used as types that young readers can identify with, and the unique twists that Jessica Day George brought to the story left me smiling and interested in reading the two sequels.

Categories: Children's, Fantasy Literature | Tags: , , , , , | 10 Comments

Dragon Lit for Young People

My first year of teaching is officially over, and I can turn my focus back to my writing (and blogging!) for the summer. In honor of the kids that I won’t see until fall, I’m going to be taking a look at a handful of dragon-related books that were written for children and young adults.

As I have started to read these books over the last few weeks, I’ve been noticing some things that I never noticed when I used to read this genre as a twelve-year-old–namely, the stereotypical characters and plot devices that show up in children’s fantasy.  Is it bad for authors to use them? Probably not–there’s a reason they’re popular enough to reuse. Do they get old fast when I read these fantasy books as a twenty-something? Absolutely. As I present five of these dragon books to you, I will make a list of the top three stereotypes that show up in each book along with the top three unique points. There are a lot of dragon books out there as well as a lot of stereotypes, so you’ll probably see this theme pop up again later this summer with new titles.

Here’s a sneak peek at some of the stereotypes that show up in the children’s fantasy genre:

  • the orphaned nobody who winds up marrying royalty after saving the kingdom
  • the young person with a special gift or a unique bond to dragons
  • the main character who has a bond to the villain that they knew nothing about
  • the mentor who dies
  • the journey to self-discovery or self-acceptance
  • the superior wisdom of a twelve-year-old above dozens of mature adults
  • the youth’s single mistake that makes everything appear lost and hopeless until they learn their lesson–and then, somehow, the situation comes back under control
  • the dragon who needs the help of a young human despite being far older, stronger, and wiser than the youth

The list goes on and on, and my longer list keeps growing. I’d love to hear what stereotypes you would add to this list. Which ones bother you the most? Which ones have you seen repeated in the  most books?

Check back again on Wednesday for my thoughts on the book that got me going on this topic: Dragon Slippers.

Categories: Children's, Fantasy Literature | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

And the mystery book* is…

Neverending Story cover art

Falkor, the luckdragon, depicted in the center of the book cover. Image borrowed from Wikipedia.

The Neverending Story.

I first heard the words as a child in a hotel room while my parents flipped channels on the cable TV. My family didn’t get cable at home, so it was only in the already-thrilling setting of a hotel room that I was introduced to Animal Planet, Cartoon Network, and old Disney classics. I don’t remember how old I was when The Neverending Story was briefly flipped on before bed, but I do remember the instant intrigue I felt. A classic tale, a magical book, and a story with no end—I was hooked. It took until this month for me to actually follow through and find the book at the library, but I’ve finally experienced the story that had been calling my name for years.

Have you read, seen, or at least heard of it? It’s a sweet story about a bullied boy who reads the fantasy tale of a world that is literally falling apart—and he, Bastian Balthazar Bux, is the only person who can save it. I have to admit, I enjoyed the half of the book where he was still on the outside looking into the book much more than the person he became upon entering the land of Fantastica, but his journey home again was powerful and touching. The most interesting aspect of the story for me was the idea that there is a link between the human and Fantastican worlds, and only when humans believe in Fantastica can either world be healthy and whole.

There were two “dragons” in the story. The more traditional dragon was invented by Bastian to kidnap a princess so that a noble knight could prove his worth. His role was minimal. Falkor the luckdragon had a much greater part to play.

Luckdragons aren’t exactly what we think of as dragons. I will let Michael Ende, the author, explain in his own words:

“Luckdragons are among the strangest animals in Fantastica. They bear no resemblance to ordinary dragons, which look like loathsome snakes and live in deep caves, diffusing a noxious stench and guarding some real or imaginary treasure…. Luckdragons are creatures of air, warmth, and pure joy. Despite their great size, they are as light as a summer cloud, and consequently need no wings for flying. They swim in the air of heaven as fish swim in water. Seen from the earth, they look like slow lightning flashes. The most amazing thing about them is their song. Their voice sounds like the golden note of a large bell, and when they speak softly the bell seems to be ringing in the distance. Anyone who has heard this sound will remember it as long as he lives and tell his grandchildren about it.” The Neverending Story

Falkor is one of my favorite main characters in the story. Bastian makes too many foolish mistakes for me to love him, and Atreyu (a Fantastican boy who plays a key role in the story) makes too few mistakes. Falkor, on the other hand, is wise, powerful, joyful, and kind–and more convincingly so because he is not a person. He gives helpful advice, is a strong ally in trouble, cheers up those who are discouraged, and above all, holds on to hope. This luckdragon is the kind of friend that we all hope for.

*For those of you who missed my last post, I mentioned a “mystery book” that I had read while sick that I was going to say more about on Thursday. This is that book. Today is no longer Thursday, but some things came up before I finished my post, and I wasn’t able to finish it until today.

Categories: Children's, Fantasy Literature | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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