CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 25. . . .March 2, 2012
The Apprentice Dragons.
Alison Baird. Illustrated by Frances Tyrrell.
Oakville, ON: Salon Books, 2011.
190 pp., pbk., $12.99.
Grades 5-7 / Ages 10-12.
Review by Saeyong Kim.
The King gave him a long, serious look. Then he turned to the queen, who nodded. "I do not like to leave my son among humans, in a strange place," he said. "This is no land for dragons. But if this is what you wish to do, then so be it. Your mother and I will depart for our homeland now. You are old enough to be left on your own."
Lung Wang grinned. "Don't despair! I have a plan. I've availed myself of the free literature offered by this establishment for the benefit of tourists, and I noticed that there is a town in this region which goes by the name of Okanagan Falls…. If we cannot take the Apprentices to China to undergo the Ordeal of Longmen, we will simply create another ordeal for them here. Since all it takes to become a dragon is to fight your way up a waterfall, we will use a local one for that purpose."
"Thank you, Lung Wang," [Ai Lien] replied. "I'm so glad you're staying here with me, at least for a while. I feel much better already." Her friend's optimism was rather cheering. But she still had an uneasy feeling when she recalled the grim look on the Dragon King's face. She was sure that changing his royal father's mind would not be anywhere near as easy as Lung Wang thought.
The Apprentice Dragons is the sequel to Alison Baird's The Dragon's Egg, which introduced the young Chinese Dragon Lung Wang and Ai Lien Feng, the girl who befriends him in Toronto. In The Apprentice Dragons, it has been some months since Lung Wang left for China and his home in the Yangtze River. Ai Lien misses him but also feels frustrated that she has nobody with whom to share her secret; namely, that dragons really do exist. Soon she finds that her goldfish have learned enough magic from Lung Wang during his stay in her house that they can change themselves into small 'Apprentice Dragons.' The newly-turned dragons create multiple problems for Ai Lien because, while they have some magic and the ability to speak, they are childish, stubborn and willful, making it difficult for Ai Lien to keep the existence of dragons a secret. The Apprentice Dragons follow her on a family trip to British Columbia where Ai Lien asks her ancestor's ghost to contact Lung Wang in China for help. Once met, the two deal with the problem of getting the Apprentice Dragons acknowledged as true dragons by the Dragon King, and also with the Ogopogo of Okanagan lake, who turns out to be a Chinese Dragon who came to Canada a long time ago and settled here.
There is a lot more happening in The Apprentice Dragons than in the previous book, but the plot is not as comprehensible. Instead of having a clear idea of what she wants to do, Ai Lien drifts passively through about half of the book, responding to the problems that the Apprentice Dragons create, one by one. The story begins to move with purpose only once Ai Lien and Lung Wang meet in British Columbia and decide to have the Apprentice Dragons acknowledged as true dragons by swimming up a waterfall. As a result, some events and themes from early in the book which seemed meaningful do not turn out to have much function towards the end of the book, which can be confusing.
Perhaps this confusion comes from the novel's having too many themes; The Apprentice Dragons deals directly and indirectly with issues of heritage, immigration, cross-cultural family relationships, human influence on the environment, responsibility, growing up, empathy for another, friendship, different ways of holding beliefs or superstitions, telling the truth versus lying, and making choices. Because it is difficult to develop these many themes thoroughly while also telling a fast-paced story, sometimes it looks like a theme might be explored – but ultimately it is just mentioned the once, in passing as it were, and left uninvestigated. The events which set up those themes are also left behind, making for a somewhat jumbled feeling to the plot.
For example, Ai Lien speaks to Jake, a boy who bullied her in the earlier book, only to be frightened by Lung Wang in his dragon form; she shows him the four Apprentice Dragons and asks him to look after them for her while she's away. It seems that Jake will have a role to play later on as he has changed from the horrible bully he once was and is now the only person to whom Ai Lien can talk who also knows about dragons. He disappears from the story as soon as Ai Lien finds that the Apprentice Dragons have followed her to British Columbia, however, and the reader is left wondering what will happen between the two after her trip. Likewise, Ai Lien's worries about having to lie to the people around her, and her dissatisfaction with a world that doesn't recognize magic, are left undealt with to the end of the book.
The Apprentice Dragons is like a collection of very interesting scenes and characters that somehow don't quite come together as a unified whole.
Saeyong Kim is studying for a Master of Arts in Children's Literature at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, BC.
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