'Milla saw a smooth, glistening expanse nestling in a deep velvet surround. There was a rounded dome inside, a light turquoise blue, dotted with dark gold speckles like the first drops of rain on stone. Gently, she wiggled her fingers down the sides and lifted it out.' (p 52)
Inside the outside
Some books you can wrap yourself in, like a cozy duvet. But you only sleep when they're finished.
The cover of Dragon Daughter has attracted much admiration on social media, and deservedly so. Angelo Rinaldi's illustration is indeed stunning. However, it would be a tragedy if interest stopped there, because the novel it envelopes is one of the most engrossing children's fantasy reads of recent years. This is a case where we really do get 'what it says on the tin'. From the jacket, the penetratingly magical eyes of a superbly imagined blue dragon shower us with fiery sparks. On its back rides the small but defiant figure of a girl, a vision of hope glowing from from her young face. The rose light of a new dawn catches the fringes of her lifting hair. And everything this striking image promises, Liz Flanagan's story delivers - everything and more.
Even though it was a long time ago, I have clear memories of trailing home from school through grey streets, in a depressing downpour, my belted gabardine raincoat and schoolboy cap soaking in more water than they repelled. I huddled swiftly along, not so much because of the weather but because of what was waiting for me, a world of comfort to which I ached to return, the world of a book. In those day it was probably an Arthur Ransome or a Malcolm Saville, although a very first reading of The Lord of the Rings was not far ahead. These were books I lived in, books that I simultaneously longed to finish and wanted never to end. I was desperate to get to the final pages, not simply to find out what happened, but to reach that place when everything turned out all right. At the same time I wanted the book to go on and on; I didn't want to leave its world and, perhaps most of all, I didn't want to leave the company of its characters, who felt like my very special friends. I wanted to be with them, to be like them, to be them. And, whilst I was reading, I was.
Only very rarely since then have I found books that immersed me in quite that way. Dragon Daughter is one of them
The dragon's egg
At the heart of this new book protagonist, Milla, is present at the hatching of a dragon and the two pair for life.
Of course, stories about dragons abound in fantasy literature. A good number of these are dragons that, on hatching, form a unique bond with a particular human, who subsequently becomes their rider. Perhaps the most deservedly famous of authors to exploit this idea is adult sci-fi/fantasy writer Anne McCaffery. Her Harper Hall Trilogy (Dragonsong; Dragonsinger; Dragondrums), is the element within her vast Dragonriders of Pern sequence most clearly aimed towards a Young Adult audience. It particularly stands out as amongst my all time most enjoyable reads. There are many children's books too that feature dragons, hatching eggs and riders. Amongst others writers, Cornelia Funke, Angie Sage and Cressida Cowell have all, in different ways, woven wonderful magic from these particular story elements
So, if is is not originality of concept, then what is it that makes Dragon Daughter such an outstanding book?
New world, new friends
For starters, Liz Flanagan builds a convincing 'high' fantasy world of compelling intrigue that almost immediately draws us in. In has a rich balance of familiarity and freshness that we enter willingly together with that mixture of comfort and excited stimulation that constitutes a really good read. Added to this Milla and her small group of friends are not just interesting but completely credible as characters - and hugely likeable too. It is easy to identify with them. What happens to them as the story develops swiftly engenders that very state of mind where we desperately want things to work out well, but fear that they won't - for a good while at least.
When we are reading this book, it does not matter one jot that stories about dragon riders have been written before because we are living through every engrossing moment of this one. Only this particular story is important. This place matters because it is the one we are in. This situation matters because it is the one we are experiencing. These characters are the ones we care about, not in some abstract way, but right here, right now. This author's imagining of the events comes alive. Everything that happens matters to Milla, so it matters to us.
I don't know exactly what it is in the writing that creates this effect, but it is the mark of a very talented children's author.
'In the days that followed, Milla would be glad of those wakeful hours she'd spent with her dragon. She held the memory of their closeness like a blanket around her against what happened next.' (p 294) By the later stages of the story we readers know exactly how she felt. We need all the warmth and feel good of the earlier chapters to survive the shocking trauma and heartache of the climactic later ones.
Dragon Daughter is an outstanding example of the power of story. Although the development of the narrative involves descent into revolution and bloody warfare, it remains very much the tale of Milla and her friends - and, of course, their dragons. Perhaps, indeed, this is where its true power lies. It has a human scale, whilst still dealing with huge events and themes.
And there lies the essence of of it. The greatest thing of all about Liz Flanagan's writing, is that this book is not just a story. Into its plot she subtly but surely weaves some of today's most real and concerning themes. Embedded within her narrative is an exploration of racism, with examples of its most fundamental and heinous expression. Although seen through the veils of fantasy, its presence immediately resonates with our own world. A ' superior' society that treats with blatant unfairness and careless cruelty those it considers inferior feels all too familiar. Impoverished and neglected 'camps' of unwelcome immigrants only add to the picture. And, when individuals are forced, by draconian law, to wear symbols sewn on their clothing to externally badge their racial status, the horrendous parallels are obvious.
Strident beneath all this is the despotism of the ruling Duke. It is abundantly clear that his tyranny, and its pervasive abhorrent attitudes, stem directly from a male dominance and and unconcerned determination to maintain perceived masculine power and superiority at any cost. Fortunately Milla, and a good few other strong female characters, are there to oppose him. It is highly pertinent, too, that they seek to replace those attitudes, not with an alternative tyranny, but with a new, inclusive and tolerant way of living in their world. It is quietly, but powerfully, a very feminist book. And three cheers for that.
However, unlike some of the most strident feminist writers, Liz Flanagan does not demonise all males. Once imprinted by his dragon, the Duke's son, Vigo, becomes very much a 'new man', fighting alongside Milla for freedoms that should belong to all people equally. There also are other boys and men in the story, willing to stand up for what is right, and pay the cost, alongside the girls and women. And three cheers for that too.
Politics and fantasy
After writing Tehanu, the much later sequel to her renowned Earthsea trilogy, Ursula Le Guin was accused of 'politicising her delightful fantasy world'. In response she reminded us that, 'The world apart of a fantasy inevitably refers back to this world. All the moral weight of it is real weight. The politics of fairyland are ours.' * I can think of few better examples of this than Dragon Daughter. The fact that Liz Flanagan achieves it whilst still keeping everything fully accessible to a young audience, and entertainin them hugely to boot, is much to her credit. She does not lecture, but embodies her messages in her characters and their actions - and that is what great fiction does.
'Milla's new knowledge of her own heritage still felt dangerous, incendiary as firepowder. She circled it warily. But one distant day, if they won this fight, she resolved to sit in the palace library and read every book, every sentence, every word that had ever been written (about that heritage).' (p 322).
Thankfully there are now many books that can help girls, and indeed boys too, to envision the world as it can and should be. And this is one of them.
Flying with a dragon
There is something very special in the idea of a dragon hatchling imprinting on a human child, of the two developing a lifelong, emotional, almost physical, bond. I think it is, perhaps, a perfect metaphor for the desire, the need, in all of us to bond with the world of fantasy, of imagination, of magic; to discover its power and its freedom; to fly our own dragon through life. Liz Flanagan capitalises upon our need for such a dragon as convincingly and captivatingly as any children's writer I have encountered.
But there is more to Dragon Daughter even than this. Its messages, both overt and subliminal, are profoundly important.
'The dragon's must belong to everyone. The new eggs must hatch before everyone. We have to do things differently.' (p 322)
It is about revisioning the world.
'Milla and the dragon stared at each other and the world was remade.' (p 122) So it is for readers of this wondrous book, for its duration at least - and, perhaps, through their power to imagine things being different, for ever. Now that's magic.
* In a lecture of 1992, later published under the title Earthsea Revisioned.