Jake Mendoza lives with his dad in the settlement on Smokehill National Park, a dragon preserve of millions of acres where endangered dragons can live unmolested. But when Jake is out on his first overnight venture alone into the park, he comes across a newly born — and newly orphaned — dragonlet. Of course, Jake can’t leave the baby dragon to die…even though meddling in order to save its life is a federal crime…
This is Robin McKinley’s first novel from the perspective of a male character, and she does a fairly good job at creating his voice. I felt rather ambivalent towards the narrative voice she crafted for him, though, because it was so very modern – colloquial, full of slang and incorrect grammatical constructions and fairly frequent ineloquence. McKinley is such a good writer that she manages to take on the speaking voice of a teenaged boy quite well…but it doesn’t really show off her prodigious writing skills to the greatest advantage, alas. And, well, nothing much happens. Endless meanderings and chatty descriptions of Jake’s thoughts and internal experiences preclude much action in the very simple plot. Occasional plot devices felt stilted and unbelievable to me as well (for instance, why exactly would lawmakers choose to install such stiff penalties for saving an endangered animal’s life?). Still, in classic McKinley style, the book, while a bit slow-paced, is not in the least boring.
Morally, the book suffers from something of a void. There just isn’t too much moral content here. The closest it gets to a moral theme is the importance of communication – but since communication with dragons rather than other human beings is emphasized, and since the portrayal of the relationship between humans and dragons focuses on the New-Age mystical aspect of it, I wasn’t really touched. The telling of the entire story takes on a somewhat mystical tone toward the end, in fact, which, in my personal opinion, was not particularly effective. But maybe that is a result of my skepticism about New Agey mystical experiences in general. I did appreciate the healing that came about in Jake’s relationship with his father, though.
All in all, this is not by far my favorite of McKinley’s many outstanding books, but it is still above average dragon-story fare and makes for an enjoyable read.
Content advisory: The book contains occasional bad language. Mention is made of one character making sense out of his life after ‘discovering’ he is gay.