Handbook for Dragon Slayers, by Merrie Haskell

I reviewed Merrie Haskell’s first book about a year ago. The Princess Curse was a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, meaning Haskell has officially usurped me as Head of the Michigan Fairy Tale Princess Mafia. At ConFusion last month, she was kind enough to give me a copy of her new book Handbook for Dragon Slayers [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], which comes out at the end of May.

This is a middle grade title about Tilda, a young princess who’s much more interested in writing her own book than she is in being a princess. Particularly given how little her people seem to like her. Born with a deformed leg that requires her to use a cane to get around, she often finds herself the target of whispers and gossip and general nastiness. So when the bad guy sets out to steal her lands and title, Tilda considers it no real loss.

I haven’t done a lot of middle grade reading–something I need to remedy–but Handbook follows the pattern I’ve seen of focusing more on internal conflicts and development than external plot. An “adult” novel would generally focus more on the central conflict between Tilda and the would-be usurper. Whereas this novel jumps around a bit more, plotwise, in order to show us how Tilda grows and changes. The story includes a pair of would-be dragon slayers, Elysian horses, the Wild Hunt, evil magic, and perhaps my favorite bit character, Curschin the dragon.

I appreciated the way Haskell addressed Tilda’s handicap, neither shying away from the pain and complications it presented, nor trying to give us a feel-good Message about overcoming disability. My wife has been dealing with chronic pain for many years, and often requires a cane to get around, so Tilda’s struggle felt familiar. But this wasn’t a book about a disabled character; it was a book about a character who happened to have a disability.

There were  a few points where I stumbled. The book doesn’t exactly take place in our world, but there are references to Plato and Christmas, things that were just discordant enough to bump me out of the story. There were also one or two plot points that seemed a little too convenient or unexplained. The story about the girl who wants desperately to be a writer could easily become self-indulgent, but Haskell manages it well, focusing on the character’s love and excitement and never slipping into “Writers are awesome!” or inside jokes/commentary.

Overall, this was a quick and enjoyable read, with a range of good, strong characters both male and female.

Handbook for Dragon Slayers has the official approval of the ex-head of the Princess Mafia.