October 18, 2018
(++++) IMPROVED ADVENTURING
Let Sleeping Dragons Lie. By Garth Nix & Sean Williams. Scholastic. $17.99.
Sometimes it takes a second chance for adventurers to find their way. That applies even to those whose adventuring consists of creating fantasy novels – and even to authors with considerable experience doing so. Garth Nix and Sean Williams, both highly experienced writers, began a joint series for preteens in 2017 with Have Sword, Will Travel. Although certainly well-written and skillfully paced, the book never really settled into a consistent mode: was it supposed to be a serious fantasy-adventure or a humorous take on the whole fantasy-adventure genre? Funnier at first, more serious later on, filled with gaping plot holes and dependent on a deus ex machina (really a dragon ex machina) for a satisfactory resolution, the book was chaotic and poorly plotted, lurching along rather than moving smoothly and convincingly from event to event. None of this stopped it from being well-paced and easy to read, but it left the overall impression of simply trying too hard.
Apparently Nix and Williams decided to stop trying quite that much and simply let their talents flow and complement each other, because Let Sleeping Dragons Lie, the sequel to Have Sword, Will Travel, is much more consistently written, plotted and paced. The basic characters are the same: 13-year-old Odo and his enchanted talking sword, Biter; and his good friends, 13-year-old Eleanor and her enchanted talking sword, Runnel, are the primary protagonists. Returning from the first book, at least for cameo appearances, are formerly brave and now doddering knight Sir Halfdan, who has one last battle in him; fix-it expert Old Ryce, rescued from slavery by Odo and Eleanor in the first book; and the Urthkin, underground-dwelling creatures that are emphatically not dwarves. And then there are two crucial new characters who propel the plot: Egda, the former king of Tofte, the land where these adventures are set, and his onetime guard captain and now traveling companion, a woman knight known as Hundred. The basic story here will scarcely be new to readers of faux-medieval fantasies: Egda has abdicated after going blind, believing he can no longer rule properly, and intending that Prince Kendryk will rule once he comes of age; but that time has come and gone, because since Egda first gave up the throne, Tofte has been led by Egda’s sister as regent, and now Odelyn has no intention of giving up her position – although she does not want to kill Kendryk outright, preferring to imprison him and try to persuade him to abdicate in her favor. So it falls to Egda, Hundred, Odo and Eleanor to undertake a quest to free the land, right what is wrong, restore proper rule, and all that. None of this is a whit surprising. And speaking of a whit, Let Sleeping Dragons Lie continues to toss in entertaining old insults from time to time, such as referring to a ne’er-do-well as a “slimy cumberwold” (the latter word meaning someone so useless that all he does is take up space).
Well, there is nothing highly original about the basic plot here, but for that very reason, Nix and Williams seem to be more comfortable developing characters and showing their interactions than they were in Have Sword, Will Travel. For instance, the pronounced differences in attitude between Odo, who is a reluctant knight journeying far from home bravely but not very willingly, and Eleanor, a go-getter who is impatient to the point of becoming irritating when she has to do anything as mundane as digging latrine holes instead of getting to practice new sword moves, are explored and deepened in Let Sleeping Dragons Lie. Hundred is a highly interesting new character, although Egda is less so, being more of a cliché – yet when he and Hundred converse in voices not their own, their past becomes one small mystery among many here. Odelyn is a straightforward central-casting villainess and therefore dull, and her No. 2, Lord Deor, is even more typecast – in Darth Vader mode. But Prince Kendryk has some depth to him that keeps the whole quest more interesting than it would otherwise be.
As for the book’s title, suffice it to say that Odo and Eleanor learn here of a longstanding pact between humans and Urthkin – and then it turns out there is also an agreement between humans and dragons. How that was forged, by whom and when, and what it entails and leads to, are all elements that become increasingly intriguing and increasingly important as the book progresses – until, after the main story ends, there occurs the return of yet another character introduced in the first book, this time a very improbable (indeed, well-nigh impossible) reemergence of someone whose elimination in Have Sword, Will Travel was quite thorough. That sets up the next book in the series – which will hopefully be as sure-handed as this one.
And hopefully the third book will be significantly better in one important respect: the map of central Tofte, thoughtfully provided with a host of place names at the start of Let Sleeping Dragons Lie, is printed upside-down and backwards. The entire adventure starts in Lenburh, the town where Odo and Eleanor live, and takes them farther and farther north and west toward the country’s capital, Winterset. So says the narrative and so narrate the authors. But not the map. It shows Lenburh in the extreme northwest of Tofte, Winterset all the way to the southeast, and every town and place mentioned in the text in exactly the wrong place. This would be funny if it were not so dismaying: maps like this are common in heroic-fantasy books, helping readers get their bearings, but this one will almost literally turn them back to front and top to bottom. What a shame that just as Nix and Williams hit their stride with this series, someone could not be bothered to check the map’s design and directions. Well, there is always the third book. Until then, readers can literally turn this one over and read the various town names upside-down to be able to follow what is going on.