Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Last Dragonslayer

I’m a Jasper Fforde fan. I have been ever since I stumbled across The Eyre Affair and was instantly hooked by his inventive and quirky way of writing. I’ve recommended The Eyre Affair to everyone I can and regard it as one of my top 10 favourite books ever. Fforde first started to move away from the alternate 1985 he had created for the Thursday Next adventures and the related world of Bookworld with the first of a new trilogy: Shades of Grey The Last Dragonslayer continues that progression, moving into the ever growing field of YA literature.

Jasper Fforde is the most recent successful SFF adult author to write for YA, the number is growing rapidly and it’s no longer just the prerogative of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett to write books for a younger audience. Aside from the book being a Fforde and also a departure from his best known work, I found it interesting, because I hadn’t heard anything about it and had virtually no knowledge beyond being familiar with the author’s work.

The Last Dragonslayer is set in a typically ‘Ffordeian’ world. An alternate England, this one is called the Ununited Kingdom and the country seems fragmented into a number of kingdoms and duchies along the lines of counties and shires. Magic works in this world, although it’s on the way out. Fforde has also populated it with some of the odd flora and fauna that he’s fast becoming known for. Marzipan appears to be a drug and a source of power. I defy anyone not to fall in love the quarkbeast, a small, feisty, fiercely loyal creature with five rows of razor sharp teeth and the seeming ability to ingest almost anything. The central character is fifteen year old Jennifer Strange. Jennifer is a foundling brought up and cared for by the Sisters of the Lobster, and as such was indentured out to the Kazam magical agency some years ago, she has 4 years of her indenture left. Despite her tender years she’s a remarkably capable girl and is largely running the agency on her own, she later gets another foundling assistant; the improbably named Tiger Prawns. Jennifer was very much like a younger version of Thursday Next, she had Thursday’s outlook on things and handled events and people with the same no nonsense approach. The big sister, little brother relationship between her and Tiger was, for me, one of the book’s highlights.

Jennifer inherits the title and responsibility of being the UK’s one and only dragonslayer, as the last dragon is the mighty Maltcassion and Jennifer has been prophesied to kill him on Sunday, she’s also the last dragonslayer. It’s not a responsibility the girl asked for or wanted and unless she can think on her feet and stay one step ahead of the people that want to use her, largely everybody from King Snood IV down, then she could also usher in the end of the world as she knows it.

This was a lot of fun and I enjoyed navigating through the new world Fforde created for his YA romp. In some ways it’s actually better drawn than Thursday’s world. At times it seems like our world (Einstein existed and so do Volkswagons) and at other times it is so far removed (carpets fly, magic works and then there are the quarkbeasts). The dragons owe more to Naomi Novik than they do to JRR Tolkien. I finished it and was satisfied with the end, I thought it was a standalone, it was only when I did a bit of research for the review that I discovered it’s the first of a trilogy. Like the works of Pratchett and Gaiman, while The Last Dragonslayer, was written with a younger audience in mind, it does not talk down to it’s readers and can be read and enjoyed by the author’s grown up fans and in fact anyone who’s fond of clever and fun SFF.

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