This is also my first review for the year for the Australian Women’s Writers’ Challenge for this year. Huzzah! And I’ve almost read my second of these for the year as well. It’s not Tolkien, but it’s an excellent story with a very good female lead character. This is suitable for older children up to about 14 years, said the expert without kids. But, I did do Young Adult literature when I was at librarty school and, I have to say, it was far and away my favourite subject. Knocked cataloguing right into a cocked hat. And I loved cataloguing!
Really. I did.
Good reading, everybody :)
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In western literature, dragons are objects of terror that hoard treasure and breathe fire. There are exceptions, like the dragons in Ursula le Gun’s Earthsea series, and any Dungeons and Dragons player will know that there are dragons benign, and not all breathe fire. But the red fire-breather la Smaug think is usually our first picture.
So when I spotted a copy of Australian author Carole Wilkinson’s Dragonkeeper at the Goodwood library I made sure that it came home to visit. China also has a rich tradition of dragon lore that I’ve only encountered once before. It was a wonderful short story called Dragon…Ghost by M. Lucie Chin, published in the first issue of the long-defunct (but soon to be relaunched) Ares magazine.
Dragonkeeper is set in the 2nd century BC, during the Han dynasty. It tells the story of Ping, an 11-yar old girl who was sold into slavery by her parents. She is badly mistreated by her master, who is tasked with the care of the emperor’s dragons. These are also badly mistreated, and one dies. Ping eventually escapes with the last surviving dragon, Long Danzi (Long simply meaning dragon), and Hua, her pet rat. Also with them is a mysterious stone that Danzi was desperate to save. He must make the long journey to far-off Ocean to recover and Ping, with much reluctance, agrees to accompany him.
What Wilkinson has given us is a wonderfully told bildungsroman. It also sensitively explores the long effects of abuse upon Ping. She, illiterate and malnourished, is initially reluctant to escape her slavery. Though she desperately hates it, she knows no other life. The modicum of security it offers is some comfort for her. Later, when the reason for the title becomes evident, Danza reveals that he misread crucial signs because Ping is a girl.
I don’t know how well Dragonkeeper fits established Chinese dragon stories, but it is certainly evocative. Rather than roar, Chinese dragons gong. They have whiskers reminiscent of catfish and are mortally afraid of iron. Danza only communicates telepathically, so when she first hears his voice she’s not aware that she was ‘hearing’ a dragon.
It is not always an easy relationship. Given the task of looking after the dragon stone, Ping loses it to Diao, a dragon hunter. Dragon blood and organs are worth a lot of money because of their medicinal value. When Danzi learns that Ping has lost the stone, his anger is terrible;
‘Ping has failed’ he said over and over again. ‘Ping responsible for stone. Dragon stone comes first. Even before own safety.’
But Danza’s Confucian wisdom recognises Ping’s true worth, which is great indeed. She gains in confidence as the story progresses, though without bravado. Ping has to screw her courage up, which makes her the more worthy of praise.
Though it’s a book for older children, it isn’t a nice, safe book. Dragons are butchered, animal parts are sold and people die horribly. At one point, they come to a village that is suffering terribly from drought:
Fragments of their shouted conversation reached Ping on the wind.
‘…just a girl.’
‘Only Heaven…take life away.’
The woman was crying. Ping edged closer, trying to make out what it was they were talking about.
‘…a single life will be lost…’
In the end, Ping must confront her own desire for comfort and safety and make a decision. This is simply a wonderful and deservedly award winning book, suitable for readers from 10 to about 14. I’ve not read any of Carole Wilkinson’s works before. I’m looking forward very much to reading more.