No Such Thing As Dragons, by Philip Reeve (2010 in the US, Scholastic, middle grade, 185 pages)
"There were no such things as dragons, were there? Only in stories. Only in tales told around the hearth on winter's nights, to set you shivering with cozy fear. Only in pictures."
So young Ansel tells himself as he rides north into the mountains, following in the wake of Brock the Dragon Slayer. One morning he'd been the unwanted youngest son of a tavern keeper, mute since his mother's death. The next, his father has handed him over to be Brock's servant. Now, headed off to look for dragons, Ansel is understandably concerned with their reality.
Brock himself isn't a believer. His handy crocodile skull is all he needs to convince gullible folk that he's a true dragon slayer. But their journey is taking them up into a snowy mountain range where strange things are happening--just the sort of things you'd expect if there really was a dragon.
The villagers believe, so much so that they have left a girl, named Else, up in the heights to serve as a dragon offering. Ansel and Brock try hard not to believe...but when they, and Else, are actually being pursued by a ravenous flying worm, it's pretty impossible not to.
No Such Thing as Dragons combines adventure and well-drawn characterization in a delightfully succinct story. Once Ansel, Brock, and Else meet the dragon, Reeve gives us an almost minute by minute account of what happens, bringing to vivid life the desperate immediacy of their situation, as the dangers of the natural world--the snow, and ice, and the creature itself-- beset them fiercely. Reeve brings to life the entire range of the struggling in snowy mountains experience, from generic chilly plodding to utterly panicked conviction that death is imminent.
Although my memories of the mountains are the most vivid (overshadowing even the dragon), Ansel, Brock and Else became nicely clear in my mind as well. They are given just enough back story to be credible, given just enough guts to get off the mountain alive, and are allowed to show very human weakness (some more than others). I liked very much that Ansel isn't a Chosen One. He doesn't suddenly develop unrealistic abilities and become an extraordinary hero; he remains solidly a boy, one forced by desperate circumstance to persevere in the face of danger. Else, too, is not a stock damsel in distress; she is a nuanced character in her own right. Even Brock, so used to telling the one-dimensional story of himself as Great Dragon Slayer, gets to become a real, believable, person. Each of these characters must question themselves--courage, trust, and loyalty are all put to the test when the possibility of death by dragon becomes all too real.
The result is a compelling page-turner of a story that feels entirely plausible. Those who equate dragons with High Fantasy-esque questings and magics might be a tad disappointed; those who love historical fiction merged with the fantastical should enjoy it lots.
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