Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde hasn't written officially for young readers before -- though the gonzo silliness of the Thursday Next books have certainly attracted some teen readers, and the Nursery Crimes books could have gotten even more, if they'd been more commercially successful. (The Thursday books can be difficult for newer readers simply because they assume their readers are familiar with huge swaths of the literary world, even if just in passing, and it's difficult to get that without a number of years of dedicated reading behind you. See my review of the most recent book, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, for more details or if just easily distracted -- look! Shiny!!!) But Fforde's got the kind of verve and energy that would appeal to younger readers, and, clearly, some editor agreed with me on that, since he got signed up to write a series called "The Chronicles of Kazam," aimed squarely at teenagers.

The first of those books is The Last Dragonslayer, which was published in Fforde's native UK two years ago and comes to American shores next week. (The second book, The Song of the Quarkbeast, hit the UK last year, and a third, The Return of Shandar, will be available there this fall. Those two will presumably make the eastward migration themselves at some point.)

And now I have to backtrack already: the US edition says that it's part of "the Chronicles of Kazam" -- which, to my ear, evokes a bad '90s Shaq vehicle, but maybe that's just me -- but the UK publisher seems to be referring to this as the "Dragonslayer Trilogy," and Fforde's own website just has a Dragonslayer page. But, anyway, there's a series, no matter what you want to call it, and this is the first book.

The heroine of that book is Jennifer Strange, and, if there's one iron rule of fiction, it's that portentous names do need to mean something in the end. But Jennifer isn't all that Strange: sure, she's an orphan -- well, technically a foundling, which means there could be some parents lurking somewhere -- working in indentured servitude at Kazam Mystical Arts Management, one of the finest, and nearly the last remaining, purveyor of magical effects in the Ununited Kingdoms, and the not-exactly-pride of the Kingdom of Hereford. And, yes, she's effectively running Kazam at the tender age of almost-sixteen, because the man she was indentured to, the formerly-Great Zambini, disappeared mysteriously a year before. But magic has been ebbing for several generations, and even the former world-shakers still working for Kazam are now cranky old men and women with unreliable, and frequently minor, powers, facing the possible loss of even the little they have left. So it's more like she's the caretaker and booking agent for a clutch of intermittently useful minor talents than anything more impressive.

The old management adage goes that if you want something done, give it to someone who's already busy, and that's what happens to Jennifer. It starts off simple, as she begins training the new foundling, Horton "Tiger" Prawns, who was just sent over by Mother Zenobia (of the sacred order of the Blessed Lady of the Lobster) to take over some of her work. But then a Magiclysm strikes -- a momentary burst of stronger magic that may be a harbinger of the mysterious Big Magic. And there are rumors that the last dragon, Maltcassion, may soon die in the Dragonlands, which would cancel the ancient magic keeping dragons in and humans out.

And that, on a small and crowded island -- which England is in this secondary world as it is in our own -- would mean an immediate land grab. The sneaky Consolidated Useful Stuff company -- closely tied to King Snodd IV, the ruler of Jennifer's own homeland, and not at all unlike the Goliath Corporation of the Thursday Next books -- quickly makes offer to Jennifer: serious wealth in return for an accurate prediction of the precise moment of Maltcassion's death.

Jennifer finds herself getting deeper and deeper, so she goes to see the current Dragonslayer -- a position formed by the Dragonpact, to keep the peace on the human side, and the only person allowed by the magical barrier into the Dragonlands -- and things only get more complicated when he hands over his duties to her, declares her The Last Dragonslayer, and promptly dies of accelerated old age.

And then things get really complicated: Jennifer is suddenly a celebrity, the center of a brewing war between Hereford and neighboring Brecon over the soon-to-be-empty Dragonlands, under severe pressure from the not-terribly-nice King Snodd IV to make things go his way, and completely personally torn: she doesn't want the last dragon to die. And, even more importantly, she doesn't want to have to kill the last dragon -- but that's what her job now is.

As usual, Fforde throws out details of a complicated, mildly silly world at high speed but in a deeply amusing, immersive way. The Ununited Kingdoms are just as odd as the Colortocracy (of his great novel Shades of Grey) or the socialist Wales of The Eyre Affair or the world of Nursery Crimes -- but equally as believable and humorously real. Fforde has that amazing ability -- most noted in British humorists from Wodehouse to Pratchett -- of declaring the most unlikely, funny things to be true and keeping them both funny and true at the same time in the course of the story.

Last Dragonslayer is aimed at teens, most obviously though its length and size (a bit shorter and less complex than usual for Fforde) and through Jennifer as its heroine. But it's very much the same kind of book as Eyre Affair or Big Over Easy; Fforde is just writing for a slightly different audience, but in the same way he has for the past decade. And his unique knack for deeply interwoven light comedy and serious drama is in full force here: Jennifer's plight is deeply real and true, even as she's worrying about her bizarre unstoppable Quarkbeast or explaining the slapdash rules of wizardly appellations. Fforde is a master at dropping his protagonists directly into the very deepest soup and then seeing how amusingly they can swim their ways out, and the soup Jennifer Strange has to dog-paddle through here is as tasty and full of unexpected meaty lumps as anyone could have asked for.


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