Big Magic and a Quarkbeast

Wyvern (“the Western Squat Dragon”) from Edward Topsell’s The History of Serpents (1608)

Jasper Fforde: The Last Dragonslayer
Hodder & Stoughton 2010

‘Mr Digby? My name is Jennifer Strange of Kazam, acting manager for Mr Zambini. We spoke on the phone.’
He looked me up and down.
‘You seem a bit young to be running an agency.’
‘Indentured servitude,’ I answered brightly, trying to sidestep the contempt that most free citizens had for people like me.

Jennifer is barely sixteen, a foundling destined to play a pivotal part in the history of a corner of England that is nearly Wales. Sensitives all over the Kingdom of Hereford and beyond are getting premonitions that the demise of the last ever dragon Maltcassion is imminent, and citizens and mega-corporations alike (Consolidated Useful Stuff in particular) are planning to stake claims in the deceased dragon’s land. As it turns out Jennifer is predisposed to take the side of the dragon, which is rather awkward: she is the one chosen to succeed the official dragon-slayer when all she wants to be is a dragon-sayer.¹

As much as any genre but possibly more so, comic fantasy is a troublesome literature. Humour being what it is — highly personal but liable to be hit-and-miss — not every exponent of comic fantasy is going to tickle the funny-bone of each and every reader. Even fans of the genre can get very picky as to what works and what doesn’t in the latest offering from their favourite author. The Last Dragonslayer is principally aimed at a young adult comic fantasy readership, so does it meet the criteria and merit high approval?

I’ve sampled famous authors like Tom Holt and less well-known writers such as Stefan Jakubowski; I’ve given established authors like Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones a fair crack of the whip. And here’s what I’ve concluded: comic fantasy titles that rely almost entirely on whimsy (funny names, convoluted logic that is anything but logical, knowing nods to and send-ups of current events and personalities that may soon leave the collective memory) are instantly forgettable and frequently tedious in the reading; however, novels that show a deep and admiring understanding of the tropes chosen, combined with an equally deep and emotional connection with the main protagonists, are the ones that I fondly recall and that create a lingering satisfied glow.

The Last Dragonslayer at times veers towards pure whimsy. Powerful magic-users incline towards adopting names, such as The Mighty Shandar, more suitable for stage conjurers. The Mollusc on Sunday newspaper is a weak pun on the reactionary Mail on Sunday of our world, while The Yogi Baird Show is a play on television pioneer John Logie Baird and a 20th-century cartoon character (the name Yogi Bear was itself inspired by baseball player Yogi Berra). These plays on words could prove either cheap laughs or deep groans. My hopes for the novel looked to be foundering on the sandbanks. But then, once I’d pushed the craft of expectations into mid-stream (a good quarter of the way through the book) powerful currents emerged from the depths to push the plot along and strengthen my confidence in Jennifer Strange being a worthwhile creation.²

Enough of riparian metaphors. Jennifer may not use magic herself but makes up for it in sheer guts and maturity of thought. Used to being proactive — as already mentioned, she runs the Kazam Magic Agency in the mysterious absence of Mr Zambini — she is therefore puzzled by the slow decline of magic in the world, and especially when it suddenly seems to pass its nadir with a rapid upswing. Is this linked to the prophesied death of the last dragon?

In her investigations she finds herself first becoming apprentice to the official dragonslayer and then (not a spoiler, as it’s clearly signposted on the cover of the first edition) the very last dragonslayer. Racing to profit from Maltcassion’s decease are competing forces: the Kingdom of Hereford, the Duchy of Brecon and Consolidated Useful Stuff Land Development Corporation, not to forget millions of ordinary citizenry massing on the borders of the dragon’s land. (This region seems to stretch north from the Black Mountains along part of the Welsh Marches. )

Greed and avarice, corruption and duplicity, all seem to conspire against Jennifer’s desire to find a way around the extirpation of the last of a highly endangered species, especially one which is so well-spoken and wise. Fforde resolves the crazy mixed-up scenario is an entirely appropriate and ingenious way, at the same time as setting matters up for, at the last count, three sequels.

Despite my reservations about whimsical fantasy I do very much want to read more about Jennifer and her friends — the new boy Tiger and the wonderful Quarkbeast — and even about the polities of the Ununited Kingdom which, in this alternative world, seem now to be a forewarning of what may come in our own world (and, sadly, in our world there is no Big Magic to counteract evil). If Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines sequence can introduce corporate brand names as character handles and yet instil pathos and gravitas in his storytelling then so yet may Fforde’s Chronicles of Kazam. The sequels beckon.


¹ Keeling, Kara K., and Marsha Sprague. “Dragon-Slayer vs. Dragon-Sayer: Reimagining the Female Fantasy Heroine.” The ALAN Review (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE), 36.3 (Summer 2009): 13-18.
• Thanks to Betsy Rorschach for drawing my attention to this article.

² Jasper Fforde produced his first draft The Last Dragonslayer in 1997, but was persuaded not to pursue publication because it might be regarded as jumping on the Harry Potter bandwagon (according to this page on the author’s website). It therefore seems probable then that Jennifer Strange’s name wasn’t influenced by one of the title characters in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, as this didn’t appear until 2004. More on the series can be viewed here: http://www.jasperfforde.com/dragon/dragon.html

In the 2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge this counts as a book set in my hometown or region (I live in the former county of Brecknockshire, here depicted as the Kingdom of Brecon)

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14 thoughts on “Big Magic and a Quarkbeast

  1. Great review This sounds like good fun. I’ve been meaning to read Fforde’s Thursday Next books for a long long time now but haven’t gotten down to it. Have you read those?

    1. No, not yet, though I did try The Eyre Affair a few years ago before stalling. I’ll give it another go now, especially as Fforde (a local author, as it happens) not only talked and ran a workshop that I stewarded at for our first literary festival but also signed and stamped my copy of the book! As he’s returning to the festival this year I ought to be reacquainting myself with Thursday Next in plenty of time…😁

  2. This is one author I wish that I liked, but just cannot. I tried twice to get into Jasper Fforde’s “Something Rotten” yet there is something about his writing style that does not suit my taste.

    I agree that comic fantasy is subjective. So far the only two standouts for me are Pratchett and Adams.

    1. It’s why I thought I’d try this YA novel, Sari, as it seemed less idiosyncratic in style than the comedic noir that I was initially uncomfortable with in The Eyre Affair. But I agree with you as far as Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams are concerned, especially Pratchett, outstanding.

  3. What an absolutely lovely post matey! Makes me want to read the book all over again. I very much enjoy the pictures that go with it too! I find that this is the kinda book that is more clever the more ye look into it. It can be a silly story or a deeper one depending on the whims of the reader. I adored Jennifer Strange and the next two books. Looking forward to seeing yer thoughts on those. Arrr!
    x The Captain

    1. Thanks very much, pleased you liked the review! Two-dimensional fiction — more surface than depth — is fine in its way but for me rarely works in an extended story; it’d be just too fragile a structure to hold together. I’m glad TLD wasn’t such a book, and that Jennifer proved to have that strength of character that allowed me to root for her and to wonder what will happen to her in the future.

  4. Love this post! I need to hunt this book down. I’ve had to read all this “dark fantasy” to “understand my niche,” and if I have to read another book about a bad boy royal fairy that gets a hold of a kidnapped human girl that can kick ass but somehow has to fall in love with the fairy boy to find true purpose in life. I think it’s time for lighter fare. 🙂

    1. Yay, I think you’d enjoy this, Jean! Yes, Jennifer is kickass too but only in a feisty way, and thank goodness there’s no Prince (charming or otherwise) to distract from her essentially right-thinking approach.

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