Goodreads Reading Challenge 10/65 – Dragonkeeper

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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Dragon Keeper (Dragon Keeper, #1)Dragon Keeper by Carole Wilkinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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Reading 2014 1/65 – The Hobbit

In the spirit of trying to write a review of every book that I read this year, I start off with The Hobbit, published on Goodreads. I say a little about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in the review, but it’s by no means a review of the film. I will try to do a review of the film when I get a chance to see it again.

The HobbitThe Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How do you review one of the most famous works in the English language? I was prompted to read this again after seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I don’t want to talk about the movie except to say that, on reflection (and despite the additions) I think that Peter Jackson has managed to capture the spirit of the book remarkably well. Additionally, Jackson has not only had to make The Hobbit films in the spirit of the book, but also to make them compatible with his earlier Lord of the Rings films.

This is relevant to me as a reader because I approached The Hobbit in much the same way. I had read The Lord of the Rings two or three times before I ever got around to reading The Hobbit. I knew of course that it was a children’s book and was therefore reluctant to try it. I found it difficult to get past the childish asides and, although I thought it a wonderful story, I much preferred its longer offspring.

While The Lord of the Rings was a sequel (because the public wanted more hobbit tales), in a sense it was not. The size and scope of the later work gives it a mythic quality suitable for the Middle Earth sketched out in The Silmarllion. So much so that it was necessary for Tolkien to make revisions to The Hobbit in order to make it compatible with its sequel.

But it remained a children’s book. A children’s book of giant spiders, of goblins and a terrible dragon, but a children’s book nonetheless. But, this time, perhaps I was mature enough to appreciate how bond up with Middle Earth The Hobbit really is. It draws out the bad blood between elves and dwarves. The siege of Erebor by Bard and the men of Lake Town and their elvish allies shows that the future enemies of Sauron don’t simply have a few differences of opinion, easily resolved. It’s only the quick thinking (and slippery fingers) of Bilbo, and the appearance of the goblins and wargs, that makes allies of enemies.

The first cut is always the deepest. I suspect that I will always read The Lord of the Rings by choice over The Hobbit because it was my first encounter with the Middle Earth that I also love. But that it is so reflects a fault in me. The Hobbit is deservedly a classic of English literature. Each journey through it is an enriching experience.

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