Here, There Be Dragons
Category: Children's, Fantasy, Young Adult
Tags: arthurian, dragons, literary pastiche, myth/fairytale
It’s a dark and stormy night in 1917, and a kindly Oxford professor has just been murdered. Three young men–John, Jack, and Charles–all end up at professor’s home, where they meet a strange old man who tells them that they are destined to be the new caretakers of the Imaginarium Geographica: an atlas of the Archipelago of Dreams, a world of magic and legend that has inspired all the myths of our own world–and also most of British literature, since almost every famous author has been a caretaker. Immediately pursued by the forces of evil, they flee to the Archipelago and are soon in the middle of a desperate quest to save it from total destruction.
The premise of this book is absolutely brilliant. What reader wouldn’t love to imagine that every good English author spent his spare time fighting evil? And what author wouldn’t love an iron-clad excuse to rip off everybody’s favorite books? And the idea of a book with maps of every myth is cool beyond belief.
On the other hand, the premise of this book dooms it to failure. Owen has set himself the task of creating a world that could inspire all the great works of English literature. It is no insult to say that he fails, but then, it’s not exactly a compliment either. I could handwave my way past the Archipelago not being brilliant enough, but it’s also not convincing. There are a lot of cool images and neat bits, but so many of them are so clearly taken from this or that book that it ends up feeling like a patchwork pastiche, not a world with its own interior logic.
Of course, a book–even a fantasy book–is more than its setting. Unfortunately, the writing and the characterization aren’t really impressive. The prose is readable, the story never drags, and there’s plenty of fun action; but while some potentially interesting plot twists were thrown into the mix, they were never really explored, just motioned towards. Furthermore, the characterization felt very cursory to me–and what is the point of writing about famous authors if you aren’t going to explore their personalities? I felt like exactly this story could have been about any trio of plucky Englishmen without changing a bit of it. I did enjoy reading this book, but in the end I think I was enjoying the idea of it as much as the actual book.
Morally, the book is inoffensive. There are some relatively generic good themes about being brave, defending the innocent, and not making deals with the forces of evil, along with some very bland “believe in yourself” maxims. In terms of content, there’s nothing besides the standard quantity of violence/creepiness for a children’s fantasy.
(Note which doesn’t really belong anywhere: this book has amazing illustrations.)