The Coming of the Dragon, by Rebecca Barnhouse (2010, Random House, middle grade/ya, 301 pages)
Anyone who wants lovely historical fiction with a dragon added need look no further than this one!
After defeating Grendel and his mother, Beowulf got to enjoy a long stretch of peace as king of the Geats. Peace of a sort, that is--a festering feud with a neighboring people keeps things somewhat on edge, but at least the dragon rumored to live up in the mountains still sleeps. But when an ill-wishing man from far away steals a golden treasure from the dragon's hoard, it flies out, wrecking havoc and bringing death with its fiery breath.
Young Rune was the first to see it, and while he ran to warn the king, the dragon destroyed the only home he had ever known, and killed the old woman who had raised him. Rune has no other family--he was found as an infant in a boat washed ashore years, and has no idea who he might truly be. He dreams, though, of one day being a warrior in Beowulf's great hall, winning glory enough to impress the lovely Wynn.
But the dragon's coming changes that. Now Rune's one goal is to defeat the dragon....a dragon who might well prove more than a match for even a great hero like Beowulf.
Barnhouse does a delightful job bringing this last chapter of the saga of Beowulf to life, and I was completely satisfied with the historical accuracy of her story. I spent several years studying things Anglo-Saxon, but never, to my shame, have read Beowulf all the way through...so my satisfaction is not as watertight as it might be! However, it is almost unheard of for me not to find nits to pick in most historical fiction, and it was so nice not to find any here. I was reminded of Rosemary Sutcliff, my favorite writer of historical fiction,who taught me most of what I know about the Romans.
Rune, a teenage boy struggling to find his place in life, struggling to be brave in the face of the un-faceable, is a believable hero who is put in an impossible place and rises to the challenge. He's not one of your cocky, self-assured heroes who will clearly come out on top; rather, he's one of the self-doubting ones, who finds in himself more than he ever imagined. His character development comes not just from central problem of the dragon, but is also bound up in the larger, more complex questions of the mystery of his origins, and the future that awaits him.
There is magic, and the gods are at work, but these fantastical elements are subtle, and integrated into the fabric of the story in a way that strengthens the central plot, rather than distracting the reader. And finally, the great cast of supporting characters includes some strong-minded girls, although, in as much as this is Rune's rather dragon-centric story, they don't get as much page time as the boys do! My only area of vague dissatisfaction was the ending, which seemed a bit forced and rushed.
However, despite that one reservation, I think this is one of those rare books that I enjoyed just as much now as I would have when I was the age of the intended audience, which is to say lots.
Other reviews: Manga Maniac Cafe and Library Lounge Lizard