Dragonborn, by Toby Forward (April 2012, Bloomsbury, middle grade), goes to show (and very nicely too) that it's possible to take elements that might seem to have been done to death in middle grade fantasy and make them into a book that appeals even to even the jaded adult reader (ie, me). In short, I enjoyed it; not with wild extravagant enjoyment, but it held my interest just fine. I have underlined the common elements in my summary, in a helpful spirit, just for my own amusement and not because they made me think less of the book.
Sam is an orphaned boy learning magic from a kindly old wizard in a cottage of sylvan simplicity (I liked that he was named Sam, which I thought made a nice change in its matter-of-factness), who has a dragon friend (but not the sort one rides on). The old wizard dies before Sam has finished his apprenticeship, and all his old pupils show up at the sylvan retreat. And none of them believes that Sam was a true apprentice, with magic and all. So Sam, and his dragon friend, strike out on their own, leaving the other wizards faced with a magically locked door that convinces them pretty quickly that Sam has magic after all, and needs to be found.
Sam's journey takes him to a school of magic, but it is no Hogwarts. Instead it is a degenerate place where the library has been neglected, and a sort of capitalist spirit of magic for profit rules supreme. There at the magic school is a brave and clever girl, and a mean boy who plots against our hero.
And then everything becomes a lot more complicated and difficult to explain, with a struggle against malevolent evil in the form of a sorceress who's a really nasty piece of venom, and magic playing out in interesting ways, and the grown-up wizards turn up and are interesting and it was really quite engrossing.
( I liked the simpler first part best).
Things got more tricky to follow, and the climactic scene toward the end (involving the whole "dragonborn" thing) didn't make sense to me (to put it more bluntly, I have No Clue At All what happened in the relationship of the boy and the dragon and how it helped thwart the antagonist) but that could be just my own dimness. And then the book ends, clearly in need of a sequel (which I will read), but not distressingly so.
1. It's disturbing. The good wizard is dead right from the start, and Sam is alone and friendless. The adults who are supposed to be his friends fail him. Sam almost dies at one point, and takes a long time to recover. The magic school is rotten. The (tremendously appealing) dragon friend is separated from Sam for most of the book.
And on top of all that, the bad character is scary and disgusting (I really could have done without so much detail about her beetle eating habits; one beetle, two beetles, I could have taken, but there were lots more), and she tortures people, and we never (in this book at least) find out who or what she really is, so she remains an undefeated figure of nightmare. Voldemort is scary too, but we kind of work our way up to him. This bad beetle-eater is there from the beginning, casting a creepy pall of darkness from her dismal tower.
2. The story is confusing. Not in a muddled writing sort of way, but because confusing things happen without much explication. There is some backstory given for the world in general, through pages from Sam's notebook, but the history of the adult characters (and clearly they have lots of history) is (for the most part) not told to the reader. One has many questions along the way--why were the older wizards so dim about Sam? Is such and such character to be trusted? Who the heck is the bad beetle-eater, and was she always so bad? Why is the dragon doing that? There is no spoon-feeding (and as I said, I failed to understand what happened at the end).
So I'm not going to offer this one to my own nine-year old (devourer of fantasy though he is), but I am going to be on the look-out for the sequel myself....and now I see that the sequel, Fireborn, has already been out for a while in the UK, but is coming in December over here in the US...