Joseph Bruchac has made a name for himself as a writer of novels, poetry, and short stories drawing on his Abenaki heritage. In Dragon Castle (Dial, 2011, middle grade, 352 pages), he turns to the other side of his family, with a book that draws on the folktales of long ago Slovakia.
In Hladka Hvorka, a castle that legend says was raised from the earth in a single day, there is a huge tapestry depicting the legend of Pavol, who conquered a dragon and defeated the oppressive evil that had overrun his small ancestral homeland. Young Prince Rashko has always been fascinated by the tapestry, whose scenes seem to change in subtle ways every time he stares at it. But little does Rashko know that the darkness that Pavol drove back is about to take over his land once more...and that he himself might be called upon to meet the dragon again....
Rashko knows that his parents and older brother are profoundly lacking in intelligence. So when the evil Baron Temny arrives while his parents are away on a journey down the mysterious fifth direction, to the fairy land that lies just beyond, and his brother becomes besotted by the enchantments of Temny's mysterious daughter, Rashko knows that it's up to him to somehow save his land and its people.
But, as was the case with Pavol before him, Rashko won't be fighting alone. Because many of the old stories are still true...and the castle holds many secrets.
I enjoyed this one lots--it has a beautiful mythic resonance to it, and lots of twists! Not everything, or everyone, is as they seem. Rashko's journey into legend takes the reader there too, and that is a lovely thing. It even has touches of humor, that liven things up nicely, and the dragon is a fascinating being. And it is very character-rich. Action doesn't dominate, although it's there--Rashko has to think, and observe, and even revise his opinion of others in order to succeed.
For the first half (give or take) of the book, Rashko's story alternates with Pavol's, and although both are interesting, it contributed to a somewhat leisurely build-up of story. But once things get going, they get going with a vengeance! Bruchac avoids something that irks me in a number of fantasy adventures--the too-brisk dispatching of the bad guy(s). Instead, his dispatching is a long episode full of the details of the confrontation, and although the introduction of two more-or-less new characters (both girls with phenomenal knife skills) right there at the end seemed a tad surprising/forced, it was still a satisfying way to bring the book to a close.
I'm surprised that this book hasn't gotten more attention around the blogs! Do read it, if you like the sort of books I like--it's not one I'd say is "a must read because I loved it so very much" but one that I liked lots (very much so indeed in places) and ignored my children (poor neglected darlings) in order to finish.
Note on age: it's perfectly fine as a middle grade read, but the complexity and twisty-ness of past and present (and a small bit of threatened violence by the bad guys toward one of the castle girls) might make it better for the older end of that age group, moving YA-ward. So not for nine year olds, but for ten year olds (and up), if that is a meaningful distinction!