CM . . . . Volume XV Number 21. . . .June 12, 2009.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2009.
325 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.
Review by Joan Marshall.
Reviewed from Advance Review Copy.
In the morning, Madoca had to drag herself to the lair, longing to hear the news. With no older dragons to teach them, the young ones could only review things they’d already learned, but Madoca made them work anyway, just to keep order. When Lichen, Nechtan, Eenna, Spoot and Urchin finally appeared, everyone rushed to them with questions.
“Silence.” The dragons obeyed instantly. Madoca couldn’t help but envy Nechtan’s command. “There’s no need to draw this out. Urchin, Spoot and I were all told the same thing: no one has seen wild dragons for years.”
The crests on the male dragons all fell at once, as if knocked over by an unseen force. Heather’s beak dropped so low it almost grazed the ground. “None at all?” she asked.
“We must not let this news dismay us,” Eenna said. She looked more like herself, as if Nechtan’s return had restored her. “We have new hatchlings for the first time in years and they are thriving. A fine new dragon seer came to us this summer. All reasons to be hopeful.”
Fourteen-year-old Madoca, an abused slave of an eighth century minor Pictish chieftain, suddenly finds herself chosen by the dragons to become the newest dragon seer, or leader of the Pitdragon lands of Orkney (today’s far northeast Scotland). The oldest dragon seer, Eenna, and her successor, Nechtan, help Madoca to learn to tame both her thoughts and the wild dragons. In spite of the threats of Viking raids, an evil Norse shape changer, and the loss of the chieftains’ support, Madoca sees clearly that their major problem is the restricted dragon breeding pool. In a fascinating time slip in which Madoca becomes the pivot, swinging open the door to history, the dragons spiral into the ancient past, leaving one hatchling behind, visible only to Madoca and her future children.
Madoca is a strong character who struggles with the pull of revenge and impulsivity, drawn to the discipline she requires as a dragon seer because of the all-encompassing love of Eenna, Nechtan and Bethoc the young wisewoman. Her adoration of the dragons and concern for their welfare earn her their respect and love. Overcoming her understandable fear and suspicion of chieftains’ sons allows Madoca to fall in love with Tollie, a natural leader who admires Madoca’s honesty and determination.
Equally interesting, the other main characters are vividly portrayed: Nechtan’s reluctance to confront unpleasantness leads to the chieftains’ loss of faith. Eenna doesn’t let her acceptance of her coming death interfere with the joyful welcome and firm guidance she extends to Madoca. Heather, the lonely dragon, concentrates her mind on calling for a wild mate and saving his life as he is harried away from Norseland. The wilful, petulant Annoc finally leaves her position of power to serve Madoca when she understands the horror her own father is cunningly crafting for the Orkneys.
This evocative fantasy brings alive ancient history –– a time without a written language when stone circles were the centre of a carefully prescribed legal and cultural system and leaders strove to be fair to all. The dangerous cliffs, rolling treeless hills, ocean breezes and drenching rains of the Orkneys call for the magic of dragons whose lifework is to remember history and to assure its perpetuity.
McNaughton’s lively prose usually illuminates this society well. The charming, idiosyncratic dragons are delightful. The cultural details, such as the handfasting, the weaving tablets, the superstitions surrounding childbirth, and the healing stones that stop up wounds, are woven seamlessly into the story. However, there is some telling as the dragon seers and the dragons educate Madoca that slows the action. Fortunately, the dialogue paints a clear picture of character development and helps to accelerate the pace of the story.
Persistent middle years readers who love old myths will particularly like this novel, but it will also attract students who thrill to see the humble, lowly servant become the wise, powerful leader who can defeat evil.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller who wonders if her Scottish ancestors ever encountered dragons.
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