Dragonhaven – Robin McKinley

Dragonhaven

Here be dragons... eventually

Dragonhaven: this young adult novel by Robin McKinley is most memorable for its perfect conversational narrative voice of a young man who goes through a literally mind-bending experience. Plot summary from the book jacket:

Jake lives with his scientist father at the Makepeace Institute of Dragon Studies in Smokehill National Park. Smokehill is home to about two hundred of the few remaining draco australiensis, which is extinct in the wild.

There are five million acres of the Smokehill wilderness, and the dragons rarely show themselves. Jake’s never seen one except deep in the park, and at a distance. But then, on his first overnight solo in the park, he meets a dragon – and she is dying.  More than that, she has just given birth, and one of the babies is still alive….

Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?  Well, when you open the book, this is not the story you find, not for dozens or scores upon scores of  pages. Warning – the pace is ‘leisurely’. I joked before about there being no Ghostpig in the first few pages of this book: well, not even in the first half of the book.

It’s a narrative approach that stretched my patience almost to snapping. The timeframe starts when Jake has already survived the life-altering experience, and now is struggling to write down its story.

Because we are just meeting him, the first chapters could be adolescent griping about homework interspersed with creating a dictionary of ‘squiggles’ for some undocumented language. He meanders, he grumbles, and I flipped to the back of the book to confirm that there would be a plot in here somewhere.

When things start rolling with the discovery of the newborn dragon, the book is much harder to put down.  Jake’s voice is still rambling – indirect from one chapter to the next, paragraph to paragraph, and even tangled within sentences.  I think I am appreciating a meta-accomplishment after-the-fact, that Jake has been changed by this experience and it affects how he communicates… but it’s an eye-crossing way to make the point.

Yes,  (finally) the plot promised by the summary is delivered, and (by the end) very effectively: this book’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses as a whole.  It’s just unfortunate that the strengths are virtually all back-loaded.

rants and spoilers:  

Was there a point to the circular route?

My older son read this before me: he summarized ‘Jake gets driven kind of crazy. That’s probably why he doesn’t make sense.’

Well.  Literary device?  I can try to work with that.  The Sarantine Mosaic had me thinking about the book’s writing as a metaphor for a mosaic’s echoes of color and pattern and size.  Remake used a change in the narrator’s voice effectively too.

Does the book proceed like this because it is a tale told by an idio by young man whose very brain has been altered by and for telepathic communication with dragons?  Could be, could be.

You have the piled-together concepts, the youthful tone, and then the eye-crosser circular phrases. Adding the Faulkneresque loops of language, disjointed time sequences, and use of imagery, it really does match how Jake ultimately describes a ‘talk’ with a dragon.

I’m just a little disappointed that the book needed such a long lead-in to make its literary point.  This book could have been amazing, instead of quite good.  Here’s an example I dog-eared from the climax of the book.

But even though I was dozing, I was aware that we kept going on and on and on – the sky cleared just in time to see the sun finish setting and then the moon rose, a blazing big full moon, and then it rose up farther and farther over us, and the stars wheeled along with it, and still Bud was flying, no racing, over the landscape. Whatever I pretend to understand about the laws of physics, I doubt that they’re all suspended for the flight of dragons, and I imagine something Bud’s size, to keep flying at all, has to fly at some speed.  But it was more than that. Bud was pouring it on. The thrust – the bang – forward of each downbeat of those enormous wings had an almost audible THUNK about it, like feet hitting pavement; when I peered ahead the wind clawed at my eyes. We were on our way to whatever we were on our way toward as fast as Bud could take us. Although I would have had trouble throwing myself into the mouth of almost any other dragon.

Humor me here – that was the passage in monochrome so that you can appreciate the elegance of the writing: now it’s highlighted, to show the specific.

Watch the color coding – this section has it all:  Faulkneresque loops of language, disjointed topics and time, use of imagery, Jake’s youthful tone, and eye-crosser circular phrases

But even though I was dozing, I was aware that we kept going on and on and on – the sky cleared just in time to see the sun finish setting and then the moon rose, a blazing big full moon, and then it rose up farther and farther over us, and the stars wheeled along with it, and still Bud was flying, no racing, over the landscape. Whatever I pretend to understand about the laws of physics, I doubt that they’re all suspended for the flight of dragons, and I imagine something Bud’s size, to keep flying at all, has to fly at some speed.  But it was more than that. Bud was pouring it on. The thrust – the bang – forward of each downbeat of those enormous wings had an almost audible THUNK about it, like feet hitting pavement; when I peered ahead the wind clawed at my eyes. We were on our way to whatever we were on our way toward as fast as Bud could take us. Although I would have had trouble throwing myself into the mouth of almost any other dragon. 

McKinley’s too good an author to have done all that by accident.  Kudos, then, for the technicolor literary accomplishment.  I just wish it hadn’t taken me quite so much stamina to read the book 😛

The search for something, anything, to happen

For the first chapter the boy whines about doing what sounds like homework… only faint hints about past conflict.  Sad to say there are no GHOSTPIGS in sight.

As of page 130, we have had lengthy exposition by Jake about types of dragons – lizards vs the real thing. Jake loves animals, and misses his dog. He drops references to something momentous that happened with someone called Lois. We learn that Jake’s mother died, possibly mysteriously, possibly related to dragons. Jake is home-schooled and incredibly isolated in this very remote National Park.

Finally, it starts

Refer to summary.

Actually, it’s a good description of the mind-destroying effect that lack of sleep will have on you. Newborns are awful on the parents’ intellect – luckily this comes along with a certain memory sparseness, otherwise no one would ever have a second (human) child, or adopt a baby dragon. Heh.

Rants

If McKinley had started her earlier books this way

  • Beauty would have waited a year before going to the Beast’s castle – first treating us to numerous chapters about buying embroidery thread, albeit delivered in a sardonic voice.
  • Harry would have played debutante for months before going to Damaria, in The Blue Sword.  Yes, she’s dissatisfied. Yes, she feels out of place. Yes, she is restless and bored.
  • Surely she could have gotten ‘the dragon’ off the ground sooner!

So, so mysterious

  • The book jacket has it right – there’s a good story in here: boy meets dragon-kind and learns to communicate.  But, 130 pages of coy lead-in is too much.
  • I kept expecting Lois the dragon to die horrifically, because of the clumsy-seeming hints about ‘what happened with Lois’.
  • I kept thinking something dark, mysterious, and paranoid was going to connect Jake’s mother’s death to all of this.  Why otherwise hint and drag things out so long?
Really, I complain because I care. If it were just dreck, there would be less to talk about.
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  1. #1 by justbookreading on April 22, 2011 - 1:15 pm

    Ha! Love the color-coded paragraph. I’ve heard some good and bad things about this one but I still have it on my list so I guess I’ve decided it might be worth it. I’m not a fan of books that move at a monumentally slow pace and that’s what keeps me from picking this one up.

    • #2 by Sandy M. on April 22, 2011 - 2:01 pm

      Oh, yeah, this one definitely does take work to get through – I am not kidding about it taking half the book for the story to truly kick in. I don’t recommend against reading it, but I can’t really recommend it either.

      Maybe it would be more interesting the first time through if you keep in mind that the narrator is unable to communicate normally. 🙂

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