I have no doubt that, when I look back over the books I read this year, this one will be among my favorites, and the most memorable. Anyone who's read anything by Robin McKinley will understand the way her novels grip readers, making them at the same time obsessed about getting to the end of the story to see what happens, yet reluctant to do so, because then it will be, sigh, over.
This one admittedly started out a bit slow. There is a long lump of exposition that might have discouraged me a bit if I hadn't had complete trust in McKinley. Trust her; believe me, the payoff is worth it. The information at the beginning really is crucial to the rest of the story, and as far as being a bit slow goes, McKinley's "a bit slow" is far superior to most other writers' "moving along at a fast clip."
Fourteen-year-old Jake has spent his entire life at the Makepeace Institute of Integrated Dragon Studies in Smokehill National Park. The dragons were discovered in remote parts of Australia, but they were killed in such great numbers that there are hardly any of them left. An ecologically-minded scientist saved some, brought them to America years earlier, kept them in cages and studied them, and finally set them free after gaining national park status and protection for them. No one knows why Australian dragons can survive in such a harsh environment, but they do, even though hardly anyone - even the inhabitants of Smokehill, sees them. If they do, it's always from a distance. Smokehill is surrounded by a barrier supported by a technology so advanced, no one has ever been able to break through it.
Jake is homeschooled, has two other friends (most people can only handle a short time inside Smokehill before they start going crazy craving things like restaurants and movie theaters). His mother died a couple years before the novel opens, and so did his beloved dog, and Jake isn't doing so well. Neither is his father.
Jake's tells the story, and his voice is compelling and immediately pulls the reader into the narrative. While he doesn't pretend to have skill at storytelling, his conversational way with words is of course a perfect vehicle for the story. He says things like, when he's trying to explain something particularly unexplainable: "I mean, I've told you a lot about Halcyon already, but I'm guessing you've been finding it a little hard to believe--you weren't there having the brain version of the hamster running up the inside of your pantleg, and I was, and I still tried really hard to make out that it was just dreams and shock and native goofiness."
This book is about trying to explain the unexplainable, and if anyone can do it, Jake can. Because the dragons are so aloof, no one knows much about them beyond the notes taken by the scientist years back, when they were still in cages. Smokehill has a wide assortment of other dragon-like animals, so that when tourists come there's something to see, but the real dragons are a rarity. When Jake finally convinces his dad to let him take the overnight solo hike that he'd been planning two years earlier, right before his mom died, the last thing he expects to find is a dying dragon. How could a poacher have gotten through the amazing fence? And when he sees that she'd had babies, and one of them is still alive, how could he not try to save it? Even when the heat from its little body is burning through his skin?
Dragons are marsupials, it turns out, and Jake's little dragon has imprinted on him. No pouch? No problem. The inside of his shirt will do just fine. And if a fourteen-year-old has trouble with burns on his stomach, a baby dragon making baby dragon bodily fluids under his clothes, and letting him sleep no more than 20 minutes at a time, those are the least of his problems. Because Smokehill's mission is to observe dragons only - no interference. And Jake's impulsive act of saving the dragonet's life is actually a federal offense. It could mean life in prison for Jake - it could easily mean the end of Smokehill. But only if someone finds out...
This novel has more sense of wonder than anything I've read in years - it's really more a first contact story than anything else, for all that it's set on earth and involves two indigenous species. For a human, to stand beside an 80-foot-long creature might be an indescribable experience. But after you've read this book, you'll know exactly what it feels like. I highly, highly recommend this amazing novel.
Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2007)
Check out Robin McKinley's blog!
Other blog reviews:
Aspiring Inspirer's Dreams
It's All about Books
Under the Covers