Dragons of Darkness, by Antonia Michaelis (Amulet Books, 2010 US, 2006 Germany, YA, 545 pages).
Tiger Moon, shortlisted for the Cybils last fall, was the first book of Michaelis' I'd read. I fell in love with her dream-like story telling, in which magic and the mundane mixed in a fantastic Indian adventure. So Dragons of Darkness, a magical journey into the mountains of Nepal, was an obvious book to look for this year.
In Nepal, a 14 year old boy named Jumar, the invisible son of the king, leaves the palace where he has been a virtual prisoner all his life to seek revenge on the Maoist insurgents he believes have killed a faithful servant.
In Germany, a 14 year old boy named Christopher grieves for his brother Arne, kidnapped by the Maoists and held hostage somewhere in Nepal. A library book, full of pictures of the place, lets him feel closer to his brother...and he falls into the pages, and is there. Not only is he in Nepal, he has fallen on top of Jumar...
Christopher's grandmother, whom he strongly resembles, was Nepalese--he can pass for a local. And the magic that transported him has given him the language too. So the two boys (one of whom is invisible), set out toward the mountains. There they see the havoc wrought by the color dragons, who steal all that is good and beautiful wherever their shadows pass. The grey rice in the fields has no sustenance, and worse still, any person touched by a dragon's shadow becomes a bronze statue.
The suffering of the mountain people is exacerbated by the war between the Maoists and the Royalists. And it is this war, full of complex injustices, in which the two boys are about to become entangled. The rebel cause becomes real in the person of Nayu, a girl their age who is recruiting for the Maoists. She is brave, she is beautiful, and both boys fall hard for her...
And their loyalties and their missions become a confusion in their minds. To save Arne, to end the pain caused by the color dragons, to become visible, and to bring peace to Nepal, Jumar, Nayu and Christopher must journey bravely through mountains where death--in the beauty of a dragon's wing, in the muzzle of a gun, in the land itself-- could lie around every corner. And it would be a lot easier if they were sure what they were looking for...
Both a quest story and a coming of age story, Michaelis has created a rich and complex world in her magical Nepal. It is both modern, in its fictionalized evocation of the actual people and politics of the place, and fairy-tale like, with its enchantments and dragons, and the sense of old stories being re-lived. Her characterization is vivid, and the tangled relationship between the three young teenagers is fascinating and convincing. Friendship and loyalty are complicated things...and Michaelis captures this well.
But, sadly for me, I found the adventures of the heroes' journey becoming a little tedious after a while--I felt that I grasped the "danger lurks around every corner" and "people are suffering" and "no cause is totally just" themes sooner than the author believed I had--at 545 pages, it's a long book, and didn't necessarily need to be quite so long. So although I enjoyed it, I didn't fall hard for it, the way I did with Tiger Moon.
Fans of Finnikin of the Rock, by Melina Marchetta, might like this one--it is similar in feel, with its violent, unremitting journey (although fewer violent things happen to the characters in this book, and it is closer to a fairy tale than an epic, with more moments of beauty and wonder).
Note on age appropriateness: Two of the main characters turn to each other for comfort, and end up having sex. There's violence, and one scene in particular that is rather horrible and sad.
Here's another review at Wands and Worlds, which (among other things) discusses the mix of real world politics and fantasy in the book.