Dragon Run, by Patrick Matthews (Scholastic, March 1, 2013, but on shelves now, middle grade) is a just fine fantasy adventure for the 9-11 year-old set. It's an "if they like the cover they'll like the book" book -- boy, sword, dragon, with a title that promises action.
In an alternate, quasi-medieval world, all twelve year-olds are tested to determine their rank in life. Al dreams of getting the highest rank mark--a seven--tattooed on his neck...but instead, he is found wanting. All his ambitions go up in smoke when he is pronounced a zero, something virtually unheard of. Ones are beyond the pale, but absolutely no-one wants anything to do with a zero...except the Cullers, who want to kill them for eugenics purposes.
Fortunately Al gets some help escaping from the castle keep where he's been tested...but how will he survive, despised and alone, pursued by the ruthless killers who want to cull him?
But there is more to his story than that. For Al's world is one ruled by dragons, though they pay little attention to the humans crawling beneath them. As Al flees from the Cullers, he begins to learn that his world is a much more complex and scary place than he had imagined. The dragons are much more than they seem...and Al is forced to confront their power, head on, to save not only himself, but his people...
It's a great story, with a great premise--I give it very high marks for Plot. Seeing how the whole eugenics bit played out was particularly interesting. Though Al and his two good friends (boy and girl) don't rise to memorable heights of characterization, they're just fine, and it's nice to read about a hero who's special because he has nothing going for him but his own pluck and stubborn-ness. Interest is added by several not-quite-human races that co-exist with regular people. The writing isn't exceptional, being your standard, occasionally stilted, quasi-medieval fantasy writing, but I'm so used to that that it didn't bother me.
However, world-builidng-wise this fell short for me. It's not till around page 194 that the reader learns what the whole point of the cast system is, how magic is important to this world, and why the dragons care, and it's not till page 223 that I realized that "Lord Archovar," who had been mentioned several times, was in fact a dragon. It seems to me that if you are going to have overlord dragons and a world with magic, you should make it patently obvious from the beginning.
Just to show that it wasn't (at least, not entirely, my dimness as a reader), here's where we hear of Lord Archovar for the first time:
"A tall man stood in the opening. His black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and his tabard bore the purple and yellow flower of Lord Archovar. He raised a long brass horn to his lips and blew three short bursts. A hush rippled through the crowed, and the man dropped gracefully to one knee, bowing his head. On either side of him, the men at the gates echoed his gesture, as did the guards on the wall above.
The people in the field dropped to their knees as fast as they could, bowing their heads and closing their eyes. Al went to one knee, but kept his eyes open, staring at the dead leaves on the ground.
Glancing sideways , he noticed that Wisp also had his eyes open. The boys shared a look, then watched the dragon's shadow soar across the field and disappear behind the castle." (page 5)
It totally went over my head that Lord Archovar and the dragon were one and the same; when I got to page 233, and his dragon-ness was made clear, I flipped back through to see if I had missed anything, and didn't find any statements of obvious dragon-ness I had overlooked. (However, on page 9 it's clear that another lord is a dragon, so perhaps I should have made the connection....).
And I think that if you have a variety of not quite human races, you shouldn't keep introducing them abruptly, but mention early on that they might be expected. It's less jarring that way, when suddenly you meet people with webbed hands, or white fur.
So though I did appreciate the story, the book as a whole didn't quite work for me because the world wasn't solidly built enough for me, and the characterization and writing weren't quite enough to compensate. It's not one I'd urge grown-up readers to seek out, but kids in the market for a rather exciting "boy becomes hero" story, for whom plot is most important, may well enjoy it lots.
Here's the Kirkus review, which provides details I didn't. I do not agree the ending was predictable, as the Kirkus reviewer opined--I liked the ending, and found it very interesting and surprising (maybe because the Kirkus reader figured out long, long before me who was a dragon, and what the dragons were up to....). I do agree, however, that it "went down pretty easy."
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)