Villain Keeper (The Last Dragon Charmer Book 1), by Laurie McKay (HarperCollins, middle grade, February, 2015), starts as if it is going to be a standard medievally boy on dragon-slaying quest story, but bang! things take a surprising turn when our young hero, Prince Caden, finds himself magically transported to Ashville, North Carolina. How will he find a dragon to slay there in the mundane world? And how will he ever get home again? A young magic user, Brynne, has fallen through with him, and though her magic still works, she has no clue how to get them back where they belong. (Caden's beautiful white stallion ends up in Ashville too, adding bonus beautiful brave horse elements for the horse-loving kid).
So Caden finds himself in foster care, enrolled in the public school system (where he is, later in the book, joined by Brynne). But Caden's school has a very peculiar set up, one that makes clear why the book has the title it does. And when Caden becomes determined to track down a missing girl, Jane Chan, who disappeared from his foster home a little bit earlier, he finds himself in the thick of dangers just as magical as those he might have expected to find back home. And the lack of dragons proves not to be much of a problem after all!
Caden's character is initially defined by his all-consuming desire to reach Elite Paladin status, and win the respect of his father and numerous older brothers. Elite Paladin aspirations and ideals fit somewhat awkwardly into the social norms of our world; as he realizes this, Caden gradually becomes a more developed character (which is good, because he starts the book as a cardboard sterotypical kid hero wanna-be), finding friends and a place in a family that, despite being a foster care placement, offers him more than his own royal family did. I also enjoyed seeming him learning the potential of the magical gift bestowed on him when he was born; I like people finding out how to get mileage from seemingly not that thrilling magical gifts! Brynne is obnoxious and not especially kind, but she brings an engaging sort of thumbing her nose attitude to the vicissitudes of the situation. And Caden's new foster brother, Tito, determined to find out what happened to Jane, adds a nice counterweight on the good kid side.
It's fun and engaging. Kids will be amused by Caden's mis-steps with modern technology, and readers of all ages will find the titular "villain keeper" fascinating. With its highly irregular fantastical set up, Caden's new school (where the lunch ladies might really be witches) makes for entertaining, seasonally appropriate (back-to-school-time), reading.
Aside: sometimes I think I read a lot more like the ten year old target audience than whoever reviews MG fantasy for Kirkus. After writing this, I went and read their review, and am now scratching my head trying to figure out when "the characters frequently seem to know more than they should...." This did not cross my mind; I guess I take it for granted when characters in books (also Real Life) know more than me about what's going on. They have more invested in the story, for one thing, they have longer to think about it (the days they live through, as opposed to the hour and a half of reading time I get, and they are right there, able to pick up on nuance and detail, and they have existing knowledge that I don't have access to).
disclaimer: review copy received from the author