Easy, engaging and enchanting

dragon

Philip Reeve No Such Thing as Dragons
Marion Lloyd Books 2010

Reeve is best known for his award-winning Mortal Engines series of SF novels, set in a future post-apocalyptic world, and for the standalone title Here Lies Arthur which won the Carnegie Medal for best children’s book of the year, while his illustrations have graced many another title including several in the ever-popular Horrible Histories series for youngsters. All of which makes for a promising fantasy novella set in the High Middle Ages.

This is a charming, single-strand narrative about a mute boy, Ansel, his master (a knight called Brock) and the search for a dragon which may or may not exist on a mountain in Germany. If there was a dragon, what would it look like? Would it exist in the traditional medieval image familiar from the stonework and woodwork in churches and cathedrals and in illuminated manuscripts? Or would it be more akin to our modern concept of a living prehistoric fossil, an archeopteryx, perhaps, or pteranodon?

As the story proceeds the reader is subject to conflicting expectations: are dragons the province of gullible medieval imaginings as modern scepticism presumes, or dare we entertain the thrilling notion that there may have been something in the old folktales? And what would be the response if someone was faced with a real flying monster? Reeve plays on our hopes and fears in a very subtle way; the human characters are realistically portrayed as we experience the unfolding of events through the eyes of Ansel; and Reeve’s writing is both sparse and poetic in equal measure.

In the author’s own comments on the book’s conception he describes its genesis as a low-budget film idea, and naturally the resulting story is very visual (the accompanying line illustrations are by Reeve himself, and very evocative they are too). “I remembered reading that in the Middle Ages almost every peak in the Alps was supposed to be haunted by its own dragon. There are lots of fantasy, fairy-tale stories about dragons, but might it be possible to do a gritty, grainy, believable dragon story?” No Such Thing as Dragons largely fulfils that aim while being an easy but engaging, not to say enchanting, read.

Like any good narrative the story is grounded in some truth. There is a mountain near the Rhine called Drachenfels with a cave which traditionally sheltered the dragon killed by Siegfried, and another mountain called Knochen which, as it happens, in German, means ‘bone’, perhaps the germ of the idea of Ansel and Else’s grisly discovery of human bones on the mountain. Such underlying details add to the strength of the tale, along with the teasing title which the reader can take as either a question or a definitive statement, according to taste. Having a mute boy as a protagonist might or might not speak volumes about answer being there none.

Online review first published November 2012

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