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Review of the Day: The Dragon of Trelian by Michelle Knudsen

3813809634 9f9c0ea15e Review of the Day: The Dragon of Trelian by Michelle Knudsen

The Dragon of Trelian
By Michelle Knudsen
Candlewick Press
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-3455-1
Ages 9-14
On shelves now.

You’re going to laugh when you hear me say this, but I’m just going to come out and ask anyway: Where did all the fantasy go? I know that in this day and age of vampires, zombies, and zombie vampires (subgenre) that sounds weird, but when it comes to fantasy for the kids, not teens, it isn’t like it used to be. In the heyday of Harry Potter you couldn’t spit over your left shoulder without hitting some new wizardy/magicish wonder romp of fun and frolic. These days fantasy keeps coming out, but it’s strange. Boys who can melt people with their hands. Post-apocalyptic quest novels. Alternate earths. And dragons? At most I’d say there are maybe five or six dragon-based chapter books out this year of varying quality. It’s funny that it took me so long to pick up The Dragon of Trelian though. I mean, if I was looking for dragons, there’s one right there. Big and scaly and more than a little green. But for some reason I put it off. I delayed. Now I’ve read it, and I have to admit that it’s a tasty treat. Sometimes a kid just wants a good dragon book. And with its equal opportunity boy and girl perspective, The Dragon of Trelian is the kind of book that’s going to appeal to all kids, at all ages, at all times. If they’re fantasy lovers, of course.

Calen is in trouble. Probably. I mean, here he is, just an apprentice mage trying to spy on the incoming royal wedding party, and he gets caught by none other than the princess Meg. Since Calen’s mage works for Meg’s parents, this could be problematic, but instead the two kids strike up an instant friendship. He’s dealing with a master who doesn’t think he has any talent and she… well Meg has a pretty big secret she’s been hiding. Unbeknownst to everyone, she has inadvertently raised and bonded with a baby dragon. Now evil forces are conspiring to start a new war and kill Meg’s sister and it’s up to her, Calen, and the dragon Jakl (who, I should note, can’t even breathe fire yet) to discover what they are capable of and how to save everyone they know and love.

Is this a psychedelic groundbreaking fantasy that redefines the very heart of the genre itself? No, of course not. We’re talking princesses, dragons, magic, and bad guys. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There might be something wrong with it if it was poorly written, mind you. Fortunately with Knudsen at the helm you’ve little to fear. Best known probably at this point for her remarkably popular picture book Library Lion, Knudsen has this little world well and truly at hand. She knows how to define it, and how far it really goes. Some fantasy novels indulge in complex maps and characters with names like E’ulseth and the like. Not Knudsen. This is a smart tale that doesn’t rely on tawdry glamor or shiny sprinkles to sell its concept. It just lets the writing speak for itself.

The best fantasies out there are metaphors for realistic situations. For example, Harry Potter taps into the feeling that all kids have that maybe they’re special. Maybe one day they’ll be told that there’s a whole out there where they’re famous. The Dragon of Trelian does something similar. For our two heroes, each one is dealing with a different problem. Calen’s quest relies upon trusting in himself and actually going through with the work that it will take to become a great mage. His story is for those kids that want to do great things but may be reluctant to see how the basics apply. Meg, on the other hand, has a story that is all about surrendering control. Jakl, with whom she shares a bond, wants more from her than she’s willing to give. She doesn’t like the idea of sharing herself entirely with something this wild and powerful. Puberty much, people? This is like Our Bodies Ourselves in the midst of pretty gowns and massive battles.

The book begins from a boy’s perspective. Smart move. Boys often like reading about boys. They’ll read about girls sometimes too, sure, but generally they avoid anything that looks overtly feminine right from the start. Knudsen plays off of this. She wraps the boys up tight in the story. They come to get into the magical aspects and the storytelling. Then Knudsen makes a risky move. Before we even meet the dragon she brings up Meg (not risky) and her attraction to a young man named Willem (quite risky). She’s fourteen so that isn’t ridiculous for the character, but it does mean that those boy readers who get squeamish around romantic situations are either going to plow through and get to the dragon or place the novel down, convinced that this is (in the words of Fred Savage from The Princess Bride) "a kissing book." And for those that soldier on, they’ll be amply rewarded. I’ll be interested to see if that happens.

At 400+ pages, Trelian harkens back to those days when a fantasy novel could be a little thick. I wouldn’t consider it unwieldy either. Certainly with its child-bonding-with-a-dragon element it owes much to The Dragonriders of Pern, but that’s okay. By the time Eragon came along, it was pretty much a standard idea. Speaking of which, if you know of any kids going through Eragon withdrawal, hand them this book lightning quick. It’s better written, edited, and imagined and may serve as the gateway book from rote fantasy to the good stuff. A surprising little gem and a book worthy of your consideration. Be ready for this to surprise you.

On shelves now.

First Sentence: “Calen tried not to look down.”

Notes on the Cover: No offence meant to artist Antonio Javier Caparo, but honestly the only reason I picked up this book at all was because the author was Michelle Knudsen. I trust her as an author, even though the only other book of hers I had read was a picture book. The problem is that this dragon looks Photoshopped. And while I’m sure that won’t stop any kids, I know more than one adult who has passed over this book in favor of the cool covers (Scurvy Goonda and the like). I’m just glad I got past it because as jackets go this doesn’t quite adequately capture the majesty of Jakl (or the true horror of the misshapen slaargh.

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  • Michelle has a lovely little blog here, in case you’re interested.
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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Jeanne K. says:

    that’s KnudsEn…since I was looking at your post title instead of the book, I had a hard time finding her books on our library site!
    Thanks for the details, it sounds great!

  2. Fuse #8 says:

    GAH!! Hear that sound? That’s the ka-thunk of me kicking my own shins repeatedly. Ow ow ow ow ow. Many thanks for the catch!

  3. Rebecca Stead says:

    Yes, yes, yes!! What I love about THE DRAGON OF TRELIAN is that happy feeling that I am in very good hands. It’s such a great mix of “fantasy-lover’s fantasy” and humor. This book is funny.

    As for boy readers, I can tell you that my own boy has read this novel three times at LEAST. He’s bugging me for “the next one.” (yes, now they just assume there’s a next one . . .)

    I hope everyone will share this book with the dragon lovers in their lives. (And also with people who *could* love dragons but don’t quite know it yet.)