Here is one of the facts that I know to be incontrovertibly true about myself: whenever a lonely child in a book makes their first friend, I will cry happy tears. I did a lot of crying while I was reading Dragon’s Green. Dragon’s Green, by Scarlett Thomas, is a middle-grade children’s book about Effie, a young girl living five years after the worldquake. In Effie’s world, books are magic, the internet is mostly gone, and Effie and her friends have to stop a secret organisation from destroying the universe. This is Thomas’ first children’s book, though she has written several fantasy novels for adults. I read this for 15 books of summer (though it was not on my list), but also for SFvsFBingo – it contains long-lost relatives, so I am crossing off that square!
Oh, I loved Dragon’s Green. I haven’t read a book quite like this in a while – a book that made me want to hug it, to carry it around with me and show it to other people, to rush out immediately and buy the sequel. I am buying a copy for a friend, I recommended it to my mum for her class, and I even might contribute some copies for my local library. I bought it in a pack with Cogheart from Ninja Book Box, your #1 source for learning about cool independently-published books, purchasing pre-loved indies, and engaging with an especially friendly corner of the bookish community. I was actually far more excited about Cogheart than I was about this, which goes to show you just how wrong a person can be.
Child, all books are magic. Just think about what books make people do. People go to war on the basis of what they read in books. They believe in ‘facts’ just because they are written down. They decide to adopt political systems, to travel to one place rather than another, to give up their job and go on a great adventure, to love or to hate. All books have power. And power is magic.
Unlike a lot of children’s fantasy that I have read, this book manages to be very much its own thing, despite clear inspiration from Tolkien, Lewis, and Pratchett. I did not ever feel like the world of Dragon’s Green was borrowed from a more famous fantasy setting. Despite the prevalence of common fantasy tropes (an austere school for the “gifted, troubled, and strange”; portals that appear and disappear; magic items and quests), Dragon’s Green felt fresh and new. Thomas used these elements to further her plot, rather than being constrained by them. As I was reading, I kept discovering details that were delightful. This was particularly the case for all of the many locations that the characters visit throughout the novel. There is a very strong sense of place throughout the book – the settings feel as if they belong in the same universe, while also being very different from one another.
In addition to the delightful settings, this is one of those glorious books about books. A real love of reading is threaded throughout, with books gaining in importance and power as the plot progresses. One of the characters who adores reading is a slightly fat, nerdy boy, who hates sports and loves learning and always has a spare pen on him. I am very much here for children’s books that portray boys like these. Mostly boys in books love football and being unkind to their sisters, and I am so happy for the chubby bookworm boys that will read this book and see themselves being heroes. More than that, the heroism of all the characters in this book is tied to friendship, generosity, and kindness – and a love of books!
If he was going to die, then he was going to die doing the thing he loved most. He was going to die reading.
This book really feels like it is written for children. I don’t say that as a criticism but as a compliment. It feels like a book that was written for small, enthusiastic, lonely geeks who want friends and an adventure more than anything. (In other words, it feels like it was written expressly for Young Me). This is apparent before you even start the book. Where other paperbacks have excerpts from newspaper reviews or compliments from favourite authors, this book has quotes from children. These seem like some of the best friends you could ever have. Oscar, aged 11. I just couldn’t wait to see what happens next. Joie, aged 8. Reading Thomas’ afterword, she writes that the excitement of one of the children who read her early drafts made her determined that this should be the best book she’d ever written. Her ambition to make this an exciting world for children shines throughout the book.
Towards the end of the novel, it became more complicated and also slightly more adult. The plot picks up speed and – arguably – becomes perhaps too complicated for the final fifty pages of a children’s book. There were a few occasions when it reminded me of nothing so much as a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that has become sidetracked despite the best efforts of the DM. Also, there’s a dragon that likes to eat young, pretty princesses, but only once they’ve stayed the night. That turns out not to be a sexual thing – the dragon literally wants the (sometimes preteen) princesses to spend the night at his house – but there is a very slight undercurrent there that is dark and unsettling. I don’t know that I would have picked up on it when I was nine, but reading it through the eyes of an adult it was difficult to miss (or alternatively, as an adult, I am hopelessly cynical and reading things into it that aren’t intended).
However, despite these tiny niggles, I think this has made its way onto my forever favourites list. I have already earmarked Thomas’ adult novel The End of Mr Y as a library hold. As soon as the sequel to Dragon’s Green, The Chosen Ones, is out in paperback, I will be getting a copy, and I wish I didn’t have to wait that long – but this strikes me as a series I will want to collect and keep, so I want to have matching editions. In short, I cannot recommend this funny, kind, and captivating novel highly enough.