Dragon Keeper, by Carole Wilkinson

Question:  Can one really recommend a book about a Chinese dragon in which the dragon has wings?  Or does that throw the whole story so off kilter that all that is good gets overshadowed?

This is the question I was forced to ask while reading Dragon Keeper (originally Dragonkeeper), by Carole Wilkinson (Hyperion, 2003; winner of Australia's Aurealis Award for best YA novel, but it's really middle grade).  It's the story of a girl in the time of China's Han Dynasty who is the slave of the Imperial Dragon Keeper.   He is a nasty piece of work, and the slave girl and dragons are cruelly neglected, to the point where all but one of the dragons have died.   Now the Emperor wants to be rid of the last of them....but the slave girl, who does not at this point even know her name, saves the dragon from the hunter charged with killing it, and the dragon (though wounded in the wing) flies off with her (and her pet rat).

The dragon tells her her name, Ping, and though Ping had thought that maybe she'd simply return home, this is not in the cards.  For one thing, the dragon hunter is after them, and has spread the story that she is a witch.  For another, the dragon doesn't want her too, and is rather insistent that they do things his way.  So Ping, her rat, and the dragon head off toward the mythical ocean (on foot, because of the wounded dragon wing).   And Ping finds that the dragon is taking a rather bossy tone with her, assuming she'll be there to look after the mysterious Dragon Stone that is his chief treasure, and it's a bit hard for her to trust him entirely.  But they journey together, outwitting the bad dragon hunter who's still after them, and meeting sundry other folk (including the new young emperor), and the dragon teaches her to develop the power of her qi (which is formidable, and magically efficacious) and shares Taoist bon mots with her.  And at last, after doubts and dangers, the secret of the Dragon Stone is revealed.

In short, it's a rather engaging "girl with special gifts on journey with dragon" story.  The Chinese setting adds interest (although in that sort of "here is an exotic setting adding interest to this fantasy story" way-- such that quotation marks are called for around "Chinese").  Ping is an appealing heroine (once she gets a name) whose dilemmas and decisions and dangerous circumstances make for good reading.  It gets a few bonus points for making Ping the first ever female Dragonkeeper, and one can cheer her on as she develops self-confidence and self-respect, and one can cheer as well for the brave rat friend.  However, the main dragon character is not my favorite dragon ever-why isn't he more open with Ping?  He's basically using her.  Why does he speak fluently aloud, but in broken English when using telepathy? Why does he suddenly not trust her toward the end? Why do his magical powers never come in all that useful? Why is he keeping a comb under one of his scales (this distracted me)?

And most pressingly of all-   wings on a Chinese dragon?????

So I'm not sure I'll bother to look for the sequels, and I'm not going to bother to offer this one to my own inveterate fantasy reading child.  Though I didn't mind reading it at all-- that the pages turned nicely and I enjoyed it (except when I was being critical)--I think there are better books.

Here's the Kirkus review, if you want another opinion that is essentially the same as mine.


  1. Oh dear, wings? I've had this on my list for C but there are so many books, so little time....

  2. Those wings would bother me too. That's just wrong.

  3. The wings are wrong. The boy and I started this one, but the Playaway stopped working for us, and we never bothered to track it down in another format.


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