Pit Dragon Chronicles, Book Four: Dragon’s Heart. By Jane Yolen. Harcourt. $17.
The Reformed Vampire Support Group. By Catherine Jinks. Harcourt. $17.
Ghost Huntress, Book 1: The Awakening. By Marley Gibson. Graphia. $8.99.
Fans of Jane Yolen’s Pit Dragon Chronicles will be delighted that the trilogy has now turned into a tetralogy. Yolen didn’t plan it this way: the first three books were complete on their own, and this followup volume comes more than five years after the third, A Sending of Dragons (the first was called Dragon’s Blood; the second, Heart’s Blood). Yolen does such a good job of re-immersing readers in the world of Jakkin and Akki (who have been in hiding for a year and presumed dead) that readers of the first three books will feel an immediate thrill of familiarity. This is all well and good, since Yolen herself dedicates the book in part to “all my fans who wrote demanding a fourth volume.” They clearly demanded continuity, too: Dragon’s Heart is not the place to enter this saga. Yolen knows this: she not only explains what happens at the end of A Sending of Dragons in a preface to the new work but also reprints that book’s last couple of pages. Continuation is everything here, and Yolen handles it commendably. So the question of whether Dragon’s Heart is as good as its predecessors is really irrelevant: it is certainly as well written, it carries forward the story of the three previous books, and it does what it is designed to do by giving fans of those earlier volumes an idea of “what happened next.” What happened is that teenage Jakkin and Akki have now discovered dragon-like powers within, such as a telepathic bond between themselves and with dragons – plus the ability to stay out in the terrible cold of Dark-After. Interestingly, Yolen refuses to take the easy way out by having the teens’ telepathic bond tie them more closely together: much of Dragon’s Heart turns on the two becoming estranged from each other because they see the value of their powers differently. Each becomes involved in potentially life-threatening situations, and both learn more about themselves through handling danger. “We don’t always know a hero when we see him,” says the old bonder Likkarn at one point. “And sometimes, too late to tell him, we recognize what splendid things he’s done.” He is not speaking of Jakkin or Akki, but he might as well be: it is only after they face themselves, their bond with the dragons and the realities and dangers confronting their planet that the full depth of their heroism – and its meaning for the future of their world – can become clear.
While Yolen continues and expands on a plot she previously established, Catherine Jinks decides to take some old notions about vampires and twist them every which way. The result is a delightfully offbeat book about the sordid “realities” of vampire life and the many errors that non-vampires make when thinking about vampiric folk. For instance, “The garlic myth was triggered hundreds of years ago, when a nameless vampire joked about not attacking some woman because she smelled of garlic. I mean, how could anyone be terrified of a culinary herb?” So wonders Nina Harrison, fanged at 15, unaged since 1973 and thoroughly miserable as she subsists on her diet of one fresh guinea pig a day. Another myth disproved: “People often think that vampires live in decrepit old castles, or mausoleums, or sprawling mansions full of stained glass and wood paneling. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Perhaps it would be, if all the vampires in the world were millionaires. But since the ones I know are just ordinary working stiffs (so to speak), their dwellings tend to be on the modest side.” For her part, Nina lives with – her parents. Jinks cleverly sets up a story about the ennui permeating the decidedly non-glamorous vampire world – and then upends things (and gets her plot really moving) by having one member of the vampire group destroyed. Yes, although other ideas may merely be myths, vampires can indeed be staked, and do indeed crumble to ashes if that happens. And when it does, Nina and her friend Dave (a vampiric former punk rocker) find themselves trying to solve a mystery and keep all the vampires alive. Well, not exactly alive, since they are all dead, but…in existence. The story becomes satisfyingly complex while never losing a certain amount of deadpan (sorry about that) humor. And throwing a werewolf into the mix certainly doesn’t hurt. This is an offbeat tale from start to finish, and one handled with considerable narrative skill. It’s fun, too.
Marley Gibson doesn’t so much redo an old plot as take it at face value, which is why the first of her Ghost Huntress books gets a (+++) rating. This is a fairly straightforward story of a sensitive-to-the-paranormal teen named Kendall who moves with her parents from Chicago to a small town in Georgia and finds she can’t sleep because it’s too quiet. So Kendall’s dad buys her a white-noise machine – but instead of finding it restful, she finds it freaking her out, because she hears a voice coming through the machine. And it’s not her imagination – she’s able to record it and play it back. “Okay. I’ve got to be calm. I can’t lose my cool every time I encounter a spirit – or a suspected spirit. I am Kendall Moorhead. Psychic. Intuitive. Sensitive. Ghost huntress. No more wigging out.” That’s Gibson’s basic style for Kendall – a slight tinge of humor, chopped-up sentences, and a touch of sort-of-slang here and there. Kendall finds it remarkably easy to communicate with the spirit once she establishes initial contact, but there is nothing especially surprising in the methods of communication – cold spots, a pendulum whose motion changes, tightness in the chest, that sort of thing. Kendall’s enthusiasm can actually get a little irritating: “Man, I’m champing at the bit here. I wish the floaty lady would just appear and talk to me, like how Patrick Swayze blabbers with Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost. I know this isn’t a movie, but I wish it were.” Hmm…maybe that’s the author’s wish peeping through, but there isn’t really enough inventiveness in The Awakening to make a movie (well, not a good one, anyway). Still, there are some interesting exploring-my-gift passages here, combined with some very ordinary conflicts with parents: “You don’t have any abilities, Kendall,” says her mom. “You’re making it all up just to get attention.” Part of the problem here is that Gibson makes Kendall so determinedly normal, except for her psychic abilities. “Adrenaline is flowing through my body like an intravenous drug. This is a high like I’ve never experienced – not that I’ve ever done drugs or anything, but you know what I mean.” Making Kendall more interesting in future books would make the Ghost Huntress series more interesting, too.