Review: Handbook for Dragon Slayers
Title: Handbook for Dragon Slayers
Author: Merrie Haskell
Expected Publication Date: May 2013 ISBN13: 9780062008169
Recommended for grades 4 and up.
Note: An advanced reader copy was provided by the publisher.
There are plenty of princess stories out there. There are plenty of pretty princesses, funny princesses, awkward princesses, and kick-butt princesses. But I’ve got to admit, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a princess quite like Tilda. In this, her second fantasy novel for children, Merrie Haskell weaves myth and magic with engaging adventure and down to earth characters to create a remarkably good story.
Princess Tilda is a stubborn and intelligent young woman who wishes she weren’t a princess at all. Feeling confined in her home, she dutifully fulfills her responsibilities but yearns to fully realize her passion for writing. But while she dreams of a different life, the deformed foot she’s had since birth and the pain that comes with it has prevented her from believing she could act on those dreams. So when her she’s kidnapped by an unscrupulous cousin who plots to take over her kingdom she’s almost relieved. In fact, when she flees with the help of her two best friends, it’s a chance for all of them to realize their dreams. Her two friends want to prove that they can indeed be dragon slayers, and Tilda decides she will write a handbook about dragon slaying. But things–as is the usual case in adventures–don’t go quite as planned.
Tilda finds herself facing of encounters with the Wild Hunt, enchanted horses of legend, dark magic and, yes, dragons. This sheltered princess with her club foot proves to be no shrinking violet when faced with a challenge. Tilda matures and grows as a person, learning how to use her skills and abilities to succeed despite her club foot, and ultimately coming to terms with own roles in life and how she wants to fulfill them.
This is a marvelous coming of age fantasy with a strong and determined heroine for young readers to discover. Set in a pseudo-medieval world that has some ‘historical’ details this fantasy adventure is a nice mix of action, emotion and epiphany.
I first encountered Merrie Haskell’s work about 2 years ago, with The Princess Curse (2011) and I was impressed with her writing and characterization. The Princess Curse is partially a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses–though it manages to weave in other fairy tale and mythology motifs as well. While I had some issues with the plot arc and the pacing, I very much enjoyed the actual reading. Ms. Haskell creates wonderfully down-to-earth characters that think and act in a manner that the reader can identify with and understand. Despite some criticism of the first book, I had been looking forward to reading Handbook for Dragon Slayers since I learned the author had written another middle grade fantasy.
What Merrie Haskell wrote with some polish and panache in her debut children’s fantasy was honed and refined in her second. Handbook for Dragon Slayers is stronger and more sure of itself, with confident pacing, even story telling and a fascinating plot arc. Like her earlier work, the author references many elements out of myth and legend but rather than reinterpreting one singular story, it tells a tale all its own. The result is something that feels rich with fairy tale style storytelling while still having a healthy dose of every day ordinary reality.
I admit when I started this book, there was a cynical little voice in my head that muttered “just watch, that club foot will disappear by the end of the book”. I’m happy to report Merrie Haskell shut that voice up well and good. Tilda’s deformity is indeed a part of the story. It’s shaped her personality and her life and her struggles to deal with the results of it are real and valid. But this never turns into a book about a disability–it’s a story about Tilda. And (minor spoiler) the author doesn’t downplay the importance of Tilda’s struggles and character by magically curing her. After reading the author’s own blog post about the subject, I really appreciate the choices she made regarding the portrayal of her main character.
In a time when publishers are filling the shelves with contemporary and urban fantasies, it’s nice to touch back on what is a more traditional fantasy setting. Merrie Haskell does an excellent job of delivering solid stories of “sword and sorcery” without falling into overused cliches and predictable plotting. I’d recommend these stories to fans of Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley–there’s lots to love here! I cant wait to see what the author will do next!