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.
February 6, 2013 @ 10:35 am
You’ve given me another thing or two to put onto my reading radar, and I figured that I should return the favor (since you’ve just mentioned you haven’t done a lot of middle grade reading). Since you write fantasy, I’ll mostly stick within that genre, with one nod outside:
– The nod outside fantasy is the Chet Gecko mystery series, because their titles are all great plays on classic spy or film noir books & movies: “The Gecko Wore Chartreuse”, “The Big Nap”, “Farewell, My Lunchbox”… you get the idea.
– If you enjoyed the movie How to Train Your Dragon, you might like knowing it’s (very loosely) based on the first book of a 9-book series (and counting). The humor tends a bit toward the vulgar, but the Grasshopper (my nom d’Internet for my 2nd-grade son who reads at at least a 4th-grade level) has enjoyed them all so far.
– The recent movie Rise of the Guardians was part of a project that currently has 2 picture books and 3 middle-grade novels. I’ve gotten to read part of the first novel, and I was enjoying it a lot.
– The Ranger’s Apprentice series is a great low-magic series that I’ve read all of and listened to audiobook recordings of several more. It does a pretty good job of keeping the various countries loosely based on assorted real-world countries in a way that grown-ups can recognize and might impel kids to want to learn more.
– As a different spin on fairy tale critters in a modern world, look at Michael Buckley’s “Sisters Grimm.” Any particular one shouldn’t take you more than a couple afternoons to finish, and they make pretty good consistent use of flashbacks (and aren’t afraid to kill characters when it matters).
– Lastly, one that I think really needs to be either listened to or read aloud – Redwall (and sequels). They’re the most substantive of the books on this list, but Brian Jacques’ work at a school for the blind comes through in the descriptive language, especially of the various meals. Redwall is one of only 2 series I’ve ever read where the order in which the books are read doesn’t matter. (The other is the Gears’ “First North Americans”: People of the…)
February 6, 2013 @ 10:58 am
Merrie Haskell seemed super-nice when I met her at Fusion. I realized, later, that I *did* have The Princess Curse on my e-reader, and could have gotten her to sign it. Foo.
Haven’t read it yet, though. I’m going to bump it up my list.
February 6, 2013 @ 1:13 pm
Officially added to my list of books to read – the main character sounds awesome. Added to the list of books to make sure young relatives read, too.
Returning to a Review; Not a Spoiler Warning « Curses and Dragons
February 6, 2013 @ 2:44 pm
[…] came back just in time for Jim C. Hines, he of the Goblins/Princesses/Libriomancer fame, to post a review of Handbook for Dragon Slayers.
February 6, 2013 @ 3:10 pm
I absolutely love The Princess Curse. I even bought another copy to give my niece for Christmas. It’s one of many books I’ve purchased thanks to your recommendations. I’ll have to check this one out, too. I’m not a huge fan of middle grade fiction; too often it gets a little too cutesy for my tastes. But The Princess Curse never felt like that. It was an amazingly strong story with an amazing, strong heroine.
Jim C. Hines
February 7, 2013 @ 9:06 am
AHHHHHHH! TOO MANY BOOKS! THE SHELVES, THEY CANNAE TAKE MUCH MORE O’ THIS, CAPTAIN!
Thank you for the recommendations 🙂 My plan at this point is to start taking immortality lessons so that I’ll have time to read everything I want to read!
February 7, 2013 @ 9:16 am
You’re welcome. I’ve come across a number of things via recommendations from others (including coming to your work via a GeekDad recommendation for the princess books), so I figure I should return the favor.
That and, after having once spent most of 18 months working part-time at a bookstore, the reflex is kind of ingrained. 🙂
Friday Bookshelf: February 8, 2013 « Plot Driven
February 8, 2013 @ 10:12 am
February 9, 2013 @ 4:39 pm
Definitely add “The Sisters Grimm” to your list. I’ve been using up my Audible credits far too quickly on that series!
February 16, 2013 @ 2:19 am
Thank you 🙂 I stumble across your blog in my Internet wanderings and I’m so glad I did. My 8yo daughter dislikes books marketed at girls her age. We’ve finally had Chapter book success with the How To Train Your Dragon series but I was wondering what to read next. Sounds like this book might even intrigue her big sister.
If you are looking for something new try The Grimstones by Asphyxia a circus perform, turned puppeteer turned author.