Wednesday, August 22, 2012: Kids' Maximum Shelf: The Last Dragonslayer

Harcourt Children's Books: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Harcourt Children's Books: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Harcourt Children's Books: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Harcourt Children's Books: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

The Last Dragonslayer: The Chronicles of Kazam, Book One

by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde, a bestselling author for adults (The Eyre Affair), smoothly makes the transition to a younger audience with this humorous and heartwarming tale. He gives a nod to the lore of the Round Table with a cast of evildoers challenged by an orphan heroine, pure of heart, who sets out to do the right thing armed with the sword Exhorbitus.

As we meet Jennifer Strange, two weeks shy of her 16th birthday, magic is slowly leaking out of the world. Once-great wizards are reduced to delivering pizzas on magic carpets, charming moles out of gardens and removing illegally parked cars. Jennifer is the acting manager for the members of Kazam Mystical Arts Management in the Kingdom of Hereford of the Ununited Kingdoms. The book opens as she drives a group of wizards in her 1958 Volkswagen Beetle (her parents abandoned her as an infant in the Beetle) to rewire a house. "My job... was less about spells and enchantments, diplomacy and bureaucracy, than about babysitting," Jennifer admits. She's been in charge of the wizard work force since the Great Zambini, to whom she's bonded by indentured servitude until age 18, disappeared six months ago.

Mother Zenobia, who ran the orphanage where Jennifer grew up, remains a trusted friend and counselor to the teenager. Recently, the woman sent Jennifer a new foundling-cum-indentured-servant, 12-year-old Tiger Prawns. Eager to learn and a quick study, Tiger has become an ally to Jennifer in the running of the household and business.

The dragon population is decreasing, and many believe that its diminishment is related to the dwindling magic. They are down to one dragon: Maltcassion. On the same day our story begins, fellow wizard Kevin Zipp shares with Jennifer his vision: that Maltcassion will "die by the sword of a Dragonslayer" within a week. Jennifer calls another pre-cog colleague who nails the deed down to Sunday at noon--information she keeps to herself. Once the dragon dies, the Dragonlands become open territory--anyone and everyone can come forward to claim a piece of it. Mr. Trimble of Trimble, Trimble, Trimble, Trimble, and Trimble has gotten wind of the prediction and wants to hire one of Zambini's pre-cogs to pinpoint the hour of the dragon's demise for a potload of cash. He wants to secure the Dragonlands on behalf of ConStuff ("which dominated the Ununited Kingdom's cheap and shabby goods market.... No one much liked them, but few didn't shop there"). Jennifer shuns him--and his money--much to the chagrin of the wizard Lady Mawgon. Two royal policemen come by next to confirm the prediction they've heard (on behalf of King Snodd IV). They tell Jennifer that the king's pre-cog predicted that "a young woman named Strange would be involved in the Dragondeath." How can this be? Jennifer wonders. It must be a mistake.

When the house of Zambini, led by Lady Mawgon, is split over the question of whether to sell out to ConStuff, Jennifer goes in search of answers... from William of Anorak. Obsessed with facts, William quickly confirms Jennifer's identity and history and points her to Brian Spalding, "worshipful Dragonslayer," at the Dog and Ferret on Wimpole Street.

Fforde fills his tale with colorful characters--not just the wizards, William of Anorak, Mother Zenobia and Brian Spalding, but also the Mighty Shandar, who famously created the Dragonlands to protect the citizenry from the carnivorous dragons. As Mother Zenobia warns Jennifer, "Money is a form of alchemy... it turns kind, normal people into greed-mongers." It also causes them to masquerade as good guys, and, conversely, when the life of the last dragon hangs in the balance, some shady characters find the light.

The story proceeds at a breakneck pace, as royalty, corporate henchmen and everyday people trying to hold their own vie for the Dragonlands. The author creates an Arthurian-style tale set in modern times, where the memory of once-strong magic still lingers and the possibility of its restoration is tantalizing to some while the lure of property and wealth dazzles others. Greed and integrity, fate and free will battle it out, and Fforde keeps readers guessing to the final page. His thrilling conclusion still leaves room in the coming installments to solve the mystery of Jennifer Strange's parentage, and the fates of the Great Zambini and the Mighty Shandar. Readers will be eager to return to this magical world that shares much in common with our own. --Jennifer M. Brown

Harcourt, $16.99, hardcover, 296p., ages 12-up, 9780547738475, October 2, 2012

Harcourt Children's Books: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde: Playing with Destiny

Well known for his bestselling Thursday Next series for adults (begun with The Eyre Affair), Jasper Fforde envisioned The Last Dragonslayer as a stand-alone novel, at the urging of his sister, who requested a "dragon book." But he soon realized he could tell a lot more in this world. "It's quite an odd one, and certainly one with a lot of scope," Fforde observed, "the Ununited Kingdoms, for example, offer plenty of room for expansion." There are three planned.

The Last Dragonslayer begins with narrator Jennifer Strange saying, "Once, I was famous," as if to suggest that her amazing feat will soon be forgotten. Are you making a comment on the nature of fame in today's society?

Definitely. I like the idea of stories told in deep retrospection, as though only now--many years later--can the story finally be told. I imagine that these tales are dictated by Jennifer when she is in her 80s, looking back on a life of incalculable complexity and adventure. I was, I suppose, trying to set the tone, too, of a society in change, and of the old values being swept away.

What attracted you to the idea of dragons driven to the point of near extinction?

The Last Dragonslayer was book four of seven [books written] before I was published in 2001. I'd just been rejected for the umpteenth time for The Eyre Affair, and was trying out a different genre, approach and tone. My sister asked me if I could write a book with dragons in it, and I did. The endangered aspect of dragons seemed an obvious one, given how little we seem to care about biodiversity on the planet.

One of the book's central questions is the one Moobin poses: "If Maltcassion dies, does magic go with him?" The magical "feats" the wizards perform now are of a mundane nature. Were you playing with the idea of humans losing faith in their vocation?

I think it ties in with the extinction question regarding dragons. Once they are gone, they are gone--and they're never coming back. Magic in the book is the same. It's mysterious, wonderful, brilliant--and no one seems to care very much if it goes. It's as much about the perils of incuriosity and complacency as anything else.

We loved your specific details about the nature of magic. Jennifer believes "everyone can do a bit. If you're thinking of somebody and the phone rings, and it's them, that's magic." Do young people like Jennifer and Tiger tend to be more hopeful, or faithful, in that respect?

Well, it's a bit of a slam dunk in Jennifer's world because magic does demonstrably exist. It's real and tangible. I'm a keen believer that fantasy is an underused and unfairly maligned genre--the notion that this sort of stuff is for kids, and then when you grow up you can tackle the Booker Prize winners just seems to me a whole lot of dangerous nonsense. To give up on wonder and imagination is a very worrying trend, and besides, a couple of thousand years ago, all fiction was fantasy. If you made up a story today about some guy named Perseus battling a "Gorgon" called Medusa whose stare turned everyone to stone, well, I'm not sure it would be taken that seriously.

It's not magic alone that makes Jennifer successful. She manages all the personalities in the Zambini household quite competently, for one thing. Again, this suggests her faith in her calling, or a sense of duty--or perhaps some combination?

Jennifer is an odd fish, to be sure--she feels no sense of self-righteous indignation from being sold into indentured servitude, and seems to accept her lot with a sense of uncomplaining stoicism that might seem odd today. Her attitude was not unusual even 100 years ago, where movement across social barriers was rare, and that she can do so much from the very bottom of society makes her all the more remarkable--and that she does it without a murmur of complaint!

We loved your commentary on the corporate culture--that everyone has a price (except perhaps Jennifer). Was that one of the early themes, or did that evolve as you wrote Jennifer's story?

I think it evolved as the story evolved, and it was an idea that I'd used before, but still, I felt, had a lot of power. The broader point is that Jennifer's medieval world of patronage, dukes, kings, lack of democracy and control does actually seem quite like ours--and especially in the way we have perhaps swapped one set of despots for another.

There are nods to Arthurian legend here, with the sword Exhorbitus, and the idea of the unlikely hero with the true heart and of course, magic. Are you a fan of King Arthur and his Round Table? Is that pretty much required of all people living in the U.K.?

Even if you're not into it big time, it is always there--in the same way it is impossible not to be influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien or Ursula Le Guin, even if you haven't read them. They are there, as popular themes and ideas, littered all over books, TV and film--Arthurian legend is the same. A magical sword, a quest, a beast--all good clean honest fun!

Do you believe in free will? There are two great quotes that suggest we determine our own fates. Jennifer says, "That's the thing about destiny: it can't be predicted and it's usually pretty odd." And there's Maltcassion's quote, "Don't let anyone tell you the future is already written."

In the book, we kind of play with destiny in the classical way--that you are told something will happen, but you're not sure how circumstances will prevail to enable it to become so, or even if what is predicted will come true in the way it is expected. Jennifer seems to be offered several possible destinies, and it is for her to choose the correct one. But has the future been writ? No, I don't believe so. In fact, the only thing that actually exists is the now--both past and future are entirely abstract! --Jennifer M. Brown

photo: Mari Fforde

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