Handbook for Dragon Slayers, by Merrie Haskell

If you are looking for a book to tempt a thoughtful, introspective 10 to 12-year-old girl who likes books and horses, with a bit of dragon on the side, offer her Handbook for Dragon Slayers, by Merrie Haskell (Harper Collins, 2013, middle grade).

Tilda, the young princess of a small Germanic kingdom in the Middle Ages(ish), chaffs against her place in life.  She is filled by an insatiable desire to spend more time reading and writing, and less time thinking about domestic animals and their needs (tedious and worrying--it's a poor kingdom)  and the prejudiced attitude her people take toward her twisted and painful club-foot (hurtful and dispiriting as heck).   Fate, in the form of a greedy cousin intent on taking the kingdom for himself, offers Tilda an escape from the uncomfortable role of princess when her two best friends, Judith, who has grown up alongside her as her handmaiden, and Parz, failed squire of a neighboring knight, rescue her, and decide that the time has come to be dragon slayers (!).   Tilda, they all agree, will watch and learn and research, and write a Handbook for Dragon Slayers that will make her famous.  She likes the idea lots; she's less convinced (with good reason) that Parz and Judith have any immediate hope of achieving their dragon slaying goal....

Judith and Parz, though both have been diligent with their weapons practice (despite Judith having to do it secretly), have as yet little theoretical, not to mention practical, knowledge of how to slay dragons.   Their first try doesn't go well; they are no match for even a baby, and retreat in disarray.  But then the companions meet the Wild Hunt, and Tilda, facing down the Hunter, rescues two of its magical horses (beautiful, magical horses), who give a whole new plausibility to the idea of dragon slaying, and from then on the pace Picks Up something fierce, and there are encounters with other dragons, and an evil magic user...and enchantments and imprisonments and dangers...And it all becomes a very exciting fantasy adventure.

And by the end of the book, slaying dragons is off the table, and Tilda returns to take up her duties with a new, hard won, maturity (and beautiful horses and a dragon friend and a new respect for Judith and sundry other characters).

It must be said that the beginning of the book is somewhat slow, and Tilda is not immediately a charismatic heroine.  Her character has been shaped by her disability--by both the physical limitations that it has imposed on her and by the pain of the prejudice against her because of it--and she has pulled herself inward in self-defense, which makes her somewhat self-centered and inclined to run from reality.   But once the threesome set out after dragons, she perforce expands and matures, and as she does, she becomes increasingly likable.  There is no magical healing here, nor do Tilda's people become magically unprejudiced against those with disabilities, but the ending promises acceptance and the opportunity for Tilda to define herself by finding balance between what she wants, what she needs, and what she is responsible for.

Judith is a great supporting character in her own right.  She has thoughtful considered the limitations of her life (like handmaidens not being allowed to be dragon slayers), and challenged them head on.  The friendship between Tilda and Judith, with the complications of their unequal relationship, makes for satisfying reading, and plays a major role in shaping Tilda's character arc.  (Parz doesn't get to be nuanced--he's a nice, loyal boy who likes swords and heroics at the beginning of the book, and at its end.  Which is fine.  Not everyone needs to be extraordinary).

So, after a bit of hesitation on my part (there isn't much zing to the beginning--Tilda is depressed, with good reason, and it colors the story)  I enjoyed this one very much indeed, and read it faster and faster, with increasing snappishness toward interrupting children. 

This isn't one to give to the reader who's already gotten hooked on books with Romance--they might find it flat in that regard, because there isn't any; sure, Parz might well end up with Tilda or Judith, and Tilda crushes on him a bit, but they are still kids.   But if the need for romance isn't an issue, older readers may well appreciate this one for the complexities of character, the rather amusing bravado of the would-be dragon slayers, and the interesting twists of the fantasy elements.  I don't think it has universal kid appeal (I don't think my own ten-year-old boy, for instance, would stick with it to page 53 when the true adventure begins), but I am sure it will be a just right book for just the right reader--the girl I describe in the first sentence!

Here are some other reviews:  Slatebreakers, The Book Smugglers, and Random Musings of a Bibliophile.


  1. I requested that the library purchase this one sight unseen--I think I would have liked it as a 10-12 year old myself!

    1. Yes, me too! I think I would have been much more like back then not to have been deterred by the slowish start...in part, perhaps, because I didn't have a 200 book backlog back then! I hope it doesn't disappoint.

  2. Oh! She wrote The Princess Curse, too. Running to place on hold!

    But I know what you mean about slow starts; I used to be a much more patient reader.

  3. My reading experience was similar for this one. Slow beginning, but I was pulled in more and more as I read.

  4. I felt just like you -- I was slow to get emotionally involved with this one, but enjoyed it quite a bit after Tilde got kidnapped.


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