“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain though no one has ever been able to prove it much one way or another. The sentiment, however, is universal. There comes a certain time in a young teen’s life when their parents lose a bit of their luster. Suddenly the kid feels that they themselves are the arbitrators of the universe and their parents old has-beens without a brain to share. Not every teenager feels this way, obviously, but a whole mess of them do and it’s rare that I see this feeling portrayed in a work of fiction as brilliantly as it is in Joseph Bruchac’s latest novel Dragon Castle. Best known for his books that have, in some ways, called upon his Abenaki Indian heritage, Bruchac switches gears and presents a book that finds its roots in another part of his family: His Slovakian ancestry. The result is a wry, funny, thoroughly enjoyable book from start to finish. The kind of fantasy novel a person can sink into with glee.
Prince Rashko has a problem. On the horizon marches a large army of foes, clearly bent on conquering his castle. His parents, not the brightest sorts to begin with, have been lured away to fairyland in the interim and don’t look like they’ll be home for a while. His older brother Paulek, meanwhile, keen to invite the invaders in for some good old fashioned sparring exercises, let’s them in without a second thought. Their castle, the impressive Hladka Hvorka, was raised by the legendry hero Pavol and it houses a secret. A secret the army’s evil Baron wants. A secret Rashko will have to use all his ingenuity to protect. That said, if he just pays a little bit of attention, Rashko will find that he has friends of all sorts willing to help him out. He need simply trust them. An extensive Author’s Note, Cast of Characters, Places, and Slovak Vocabulary and Numbers appear at the end of the book.
Right from the start Rashko informs us in no uncertain terms that his parents are less than entirely intelligent. That they’re a sandwich short of a picnic. A Brady short of a bunch. The wheel is running but the hamster’s dead. “Why, I sometimes wonder, am I the only one in our family who ever seems to entertain a thought as anything other than a transient visitor?” Bruchac starts us off with a hero who is sympathetic not necessarily because he has a sterling personality, but rather because kids who see their own families in much the same light will sympathize. Never mind that as the story continues Bruchac manages to show instances of Rashko’s parents and older brother showing great savvy while looking like they are dumb as a trio of stumps. You believe that Rashko is truly ignorant of these moments. To my surprise, he does change his tune a little by the story’s close but not as much as you might think. Though he ends his story by saying that he has been too quick to judge his family, he still doesn’t quite understand his brother’s role in everything that has occurred. Telegraphing information to your readership without overdoing it is no easy task. Mr. Bruchac, however, is clearly an old pro at the height of his game.
I confess that I haven’t had this much fun with a Joseph Bruchac book since his superhero/folktale telling of Wabi lo these many years ago. In Dragon Castle you get the distinct impression that the author is just having huge heaping helpings of fun. You know those books you read that cause you to stop mid-sentence and say to yourself, “I am REALLY enjoying this book”? That’s what we have here. There’s something about the combination of Rashko’s flippant tone, Pavol’s exciting story, a storybook villain who’s bad but not in a way that’s unpleasant to read about, and dippy parents that just makes for good times. The folktales worked into the story alongside the sheer pleasure Bruchac takes in this writing makes the book great fare for any kid with a love of fantasy with flavor.
What’s interesting to me at this point is the fact that there are actually a couple threads left hanging by the story’s close. For one thing, I think we know what happens to the big bad guy, but boy is that moment glossed over. Usually big bads get a requisite death scene of some sort. This one just sort of disappears in the mess of general chaos. There was also the aforementioned question of how much Rashko’s brother actually knows. That second question makes for good book discussion moments, while the first question feels more like an afterthought. And then there’s the fact that some parts of this book get a little repetitious with the reading. I didn’t stop to count the number of “knowing glances” in this book, but believe me when I say that they are certainly prevalent.
All that said, finding straight fantasy that utilizes humor well isn’t always easy. I should mention that there are some vague references to potential harm that could be done to the castle’s female inhabitants by the male soldiers but Bruchac keeps these moments suitably vague and entirely middle grade friendly. If you happen to be on the lookout for something to pair this book with, consider Diane Stanley’s The Silver Bowl or Icefall by Matthew Kirby. All these books take old fantasy ideas and give them new twists. You’d never guess that the guy behind Geronimo or Sacajawea would change gears so effortlessly but there you go. The proof is in the pudding. The author is in his element.
On shelves now.
Source: Borrowed final copy from friend for review.
Notes on the Cover: Not entirely certain why we decided to go with the brown boring castle route with this one. It’s almost as if they’re afraid to put an actual dragon on there, preferring instead to opt for a dragon of the stone variety. Combined with the relatively generic title, I’m not surprised that this book hasn’t made more waves. Should it ever make it to the paperback stage I hope Dial considers creating a different jacket. Something with a little pep and verve. This one? Can’t remember it once I’ve put it down.