Nancy O'Toole's Reviews > Dragonhaven

Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley
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May 07, 2010

liked it
bookshelves: fantasy, young-adult, paperbackswap
Read from May 07 to 09, 2010 — I own a copy , read count: once

Fourteen year old Jake lives in Smokehill, a National Park and one of only three locations on earth where you can still find dragons. Jake hopes to one day either become a park ranger, or earn a few PhDs like his father so he can study dragons. But Jake's life changes forever when he comes across a dying mother dragon. Next to her are her babies, and one of them is still alive. Without completely realizing what he's doing, Jake takes the baby dragon home, an illegal act that could earn him life in prison.

I was a little nervous about reading Dragonhaven. Despite enjoying everything that I've read by Robin McKinley, reviews online were incredibly mixed, and I was nervous about being disappointed. After reading the novel, I feel I can understand why some people disliked Dragonhaven, as it is a flawed book and quite different from what I've read of McKinley's other works. For one thing, it's written in a very conversational first person narrative. Our protagonist, Jake, is looking back on events and reflecting over four years of his life. He is upfront about not remembering events or conversations exactly, so there is very little dialogue, and lots of focus on Jake's thoughts and impressions. The result is the book occasionally feels as if we're being told about a story, but not really experiencing it first hand, which can make the book drag. Dragonhaven can be quite a slow paced novel, especially when you consider that it was intended for a young adult audience.

Despite it's flaws, I could not help but be charmed by Jake's story and the world which it takes place in. The initial premise of a adolescent protagonist forming a relationship with a dragon despite that fact that it's forbidden, may not seem original. In fact, it's the third time in the past couple months that I've encountered such a story (the first two being Carrie Vaughn's Voices of Dragons, and the recent Dreamwork's picture, “How to Train Your Dragon”). Still, McKinley does a fantastic job of taking a familiar presence and really making it her own. Unlike other titles, Dragonhaven takes a very de-glamorized view of dragons. They may be impressive as adults, but as babies, they're ugly, and malformed, and boy do they stink. Instead of focusing on impressive aerial battles, Dragonhaven focuses on the concept of motherhood. After picking up the baby dragon (which he calls Lois), Jake quickly takes on the form of surrogate mother, carrying the infant around in a pouch, much like real dragons do. He has to deal with midnight feedings, and lack of sleep, along with the extra challenge of the burns that the baby dragon creates, and the fact that what he is doing is incredibly illegal. I also liked how Dragonhaven viewed dragons less like fantastic beats, and more like endangered species. This results in the story feeling more realistic somehow. It took me a while to get used to Jake's voice, but I ended up really enjoying him as a narrator, and the character of Lois was also great.

Dragonhaven is not a perfect book. The style of narration is not for everyone and occasionally it can drag. Still, it's such an original tale filled with interesting characters and concepts that I couldn't help liking it from start to finish.
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