The Last Dragonslayer, by Jasper Fforde, surprised me by making it onto my rather short list of favorite books read in 2012.
It's set in an alternate UK--the Un-united Kingdoms, where all the little bits of the British Isles are separate kingdoms, engaged in fierce struggles against each other (it helps to have a decent grip of the geography of England and Wales in particular to make sense of this--it could be confusing if you don't know where Hereford and Brecon are, for instance).
In this world there is magic, and once there was a lot more of it. The magicians, much less powerful than they once were, have come down in the world, using carpets to make routine delivers, and magic to unclog drains. Jennifer, the 15 year old indentured foundling who runs Kazam Mystical Arts Management, a place full of eccentric magic users, struggles to find enough work for everyone to keep things going.
But then the level of magic begins to surge, and soothsayers across the divided lands begin predicting the death of the last dragon. Jennifer finds herself in the right place and the right time to assume, much to her surprise, the role of Dragonslayer, inheriting a super-cool dragon slaying mobile, super sharp dragonslaying sword, and the ability to pass unharmed into the vast area of wilderness that is home to the dragon. When the dragon dies, it will trigger a land rush, and not only are thousands of people camping out by the boarder, eager to stake their claims, but the Kingdom of Hereford and the duchy of Brecon are preparing for all out war over this opportunity for territorial expansion.
There's just one problem in the King of Hereford's plans, however. Jennifer, far from being eager to fulfil the premonitions and slay the dragon at 12 on Sunday, finds her sympathies firmly on the side of the ancient creature. And Big Magic is coming...
It's the sort of book that's filled with amusing minor characters, somewhat over the top world building, and sly pokes at modern society. And I Loved her ferocious pet Quarkbeast (lots of fangs, but a heart of
gold). I also appreciated the digs at greedy consumer culture, and
shared Jennifer's distaste at the thought of development despoiling the
dragon's wilderness. And though some may feel all this sort of thing distracts from the central story of Jennifer and the dragon, I enjoyed it thoroughly.
I really liked Jennifer--the story is written in a distant 1st person, but I thought her character came through loud and clear from her actions and words. Insufficient Jennifer-characteriztion is a critism I noticed in my glance at the Goodreads reviews--I think if you approach this one as a book for kids, this becomes less of an issue.
It's mostly labled Young Adult, but it has much more of a middle grade feel--adventure fun, with lots of magical rushings around. I'd recommend in in particular to fans of Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones--humor verging on over-the-top-ness, high expectations that the reader will be able to figure out what's happening without a whole lot of underlined exposition, and a sense of things on the edge (both for the reader, and within the world of the book) of becoming utterly chaotic!
I thought the story hung together rather well, with no desperate need for a sequel; however, there is one-- Song of the Quarkbeast--already out in the UK. Had I but known how much I'd like this one, I would have asked for it for Christmas!
Other reviews: Finding Wonderland, The Bookwyrm's Hold, and oh goodness lots of others and I have to go to work now sorry.