The Last Dragon Chronicles, Book 5: Dark Fire. By Chris D’Lacey. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.
The Rain Wilds Chronicles, Volume Two: Dragon Haven. By Robin Hobb. Eos. $27.99.
The disappearance of dragons is a longstanding metaphor for the decline of magic in the world. But dragons have never really disappeared (never mind that they never really existed): they are among the most durable figures in song and story, both in the benevolent form that is still pervasive in China and the East and in the malevolent guise – in which they are often identified with the serpent that tempted Eve – that is more common in the West. The most interesting thing that has happened to dragons in recent times is that they have become complex characters rather than unidimensional symbols. Both Chris D’Lacey and Robin Hobb are clearly aware of the symbolic importance of dragons, and both their dragon-focused book series are laden with wonder, but what is most impressive about their treatment of dragons is the way the authors accept these mythical beings as creatures of depth and genuine importance.
The Last Dragon Chronicles is written for younger readers and is a more straightforward adventure than The Rain Wilds Chronicles. Still, D’Lacey’s is by no means a simplistic series, although familiar themes do abound alongside some unusual ones. In truth, Dark Fire is a book only for existing fans of the sequence: D’Lacey knows a good thing when he has one, and is spinning out this group of thick novels perhaps a little too extensively. Still, for readers who are fans, Dark Fire offers plenty of excitement. The story of the earlier books in the series – The Fire Within, Icefire, Fire Star and The Fire Eternal – centered on the disappearance of a bestselling author named David Rain, and the attempts by his daughter, Alexa, to find out what happened to him. Having an author as a series hero has always been one of the neat touches of The Last Dragon Chronicles, but the books have now moved well beyond David Rain’s earlier adventures – in fact, Alexa has found him and brought him back. The new book’s title refers to a deadly force that can be used to bring to life a great evil. It is a force that David, Alexa and their dragon allies must find and destroy. But what if the dark fire’s destruction also means the death of a dragon? This becomes a moral dilemma only because the Pennykettle dragons are characters as fully formed and as interesting as the humans. Sometimes they are more interesting, as shown in a brief scene involving a tiny dragon inadvertently kept in Lucy’s bag at a time of human emotional crisis: “Gwendolen! Poor Gwendolen! Stuck in there all day. Fortunately, the little dragon didn’t seem to mind. After investigating every aspect of the room (she liked the cairn rock; it did have a faint dragon auma, she said) she fluttered to the bedside table where she always sat at home and settled under the pretty lace lampshade.” Homey touches like this keep the dragons on the same emotional plane as the humans both during the intense adventure scenes and in the relatively peaceful interludes. Dark Fire is full of emotional tugging (“Why is [Alexa] so upset when her father ignores her?”), unexpected revelations (“What do you mean, it’s not a cat?”), and – less interestingly – fairly standard pronouncements (“She’s going to bring darkness upon us all”). It is nevertheless a solid entry in D’Lacey’s series, and ends in a way that could let it stand as the series’ conclusion or could allow D’Lacey, if he wishes to mine this vein further, to create yet another sequel.
The second book in The Rain Wilds Chronicles is actually a sequel to a sequel (or sequels). In this series, Hobb is revisiting the setting of her Liveship Traders and Tawny Man trilogies, spinning out a postscript to the tale of the dragon Tintaglia, with whose help the Traders held off the invasion of the Chalcedeans. Tintaglia’s reward was a promise that the Traders would try to restore the dragon species through a migration up the Rain Wild River: newly hatched dragons have been dying or surviving only in earthbound form, easy prey for humans who seek their flesh for its supposed healing powers. Dragon Haven continues the story begun in Dragon Keeper, an extended quest in which 15 dragons and their human companions continue the search for the ancient and possibly mythical dragon homeland, Kelsingra. Dragons have an ancestral memory of this place, but centuries of geological upheavals have rendered their thoughts about its location unreliable and have led to questions about whether even their belief in its existence may be inaccurate. The human-dragon bond is even more thoroughly explored in this 500-plus-page novel for adults than in the 500-plus-page Dark Fire. In fact, Hobb uses that bond to develop and change characters (physically and emotionally) in a way that D’Lacey does not – one of the ways in which this is a more grown-up book than D’Lacey’s. Dragon Haven is nevertheless a novel very much in the Tolkienian fantasy tradition, with grand gestures, portentous pronouncements and (not surprisingly at all) the discovery that external enemies are less deadly than internal dissension and treachery among the humans. The dragon characters – especially queen Sintara, wise Mercor and beautiful Relpda – are often, as in so many human-and-dragon stories, more captivating than the people. In fact, some of the more-or-less inanimate characters, such as Tarman the liveship, are also more interesting than at least some of the humans. It is the dragons who provide the ultimate enchantment of this story, their uncertain powers and complex history pulling the tale along in finely honed prose produced in typical high-fantasy style: “‘Long before dragons came back, we were living where they had lived, and digging into the places where the Elderlings had dwelt. We were plundering their treasures, wearing their jewelry, making timber out of dragon cases. There may not have been dragons walking among us, but we were walking among them.’” It is this sense of dragons’ felt reality – for this series’ characters and, through them, for readers – that gives Dragon Haven its primary attraction, even though, analytically speaking, it is just one of many recent fantasy novels intended to pull the lore and legend of dragons and their magic a bit farther into our mundane and mechanistic age.