Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Dragon's Tooth by N. D. Wilson

I was recently given the honor of reviewing The Dragon's Tooth by N. D. Wilson for The Rabbit Room, a website started by musician and author Andrew Peterson. The Rabbit Room is described as "a place for stories. For artists who believe in the power of old tales, tales as old as the earth itself, who find hope in them and beauty in the shadows and in the light and in the source of the light." Additional information about The Rabbit Room can be found here, and my reviews of Andrew Peterson's books can be found here.

Below is my original review of The Dragon's Tooth. It's longer than most of my reviews, but I thought I'd post it in its entirety anyway. The Rabbit Room version is slightly different, includes an extended conclusion, and if you are interested, can be read here.

Fantasy novels are sneaky. At first they whisk readers away to a foreign land with an honorable family determined to rule justly or where hard-working folk live under a tyrannical ruler. Next come fantastical creatures, great flying beasts and smaller beings with mystical powers. Then there’s the tension-filled build up to an epic battle where good triumphs over evil.

Readers know what to expect… Or rather I know what to expect... Okay, honestly, I think I know what to expect when it comes to fantasy novels. But just as I’m prepared to escape into a world where dragons breathe fire or fairies cast spells or inexperienced youngsters unexpectedly save the kingdom, that’s when fantasy novels get sneaky. Suddenly, amidst all the fires and spells and savings, I find characters facing the same issues I thought I was escaping.

And I never see it coming.

Cyrus, Antigone, and Dan Smith live in and run the Archer Motel in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and it’s not much to look at. Paint peels, walkways rust, and thistles fill courtyard cracks. Twelve-year-old Cyrus filled the pool with tires. Thirteen-year-old Antigone avoids the Archer’s cigarette graveyard / mold farm smelling reception area. Twenty-going-on-thirty-year-old Dan runs the Archer’s restaurant - one table, a toaster, and a waffle iron. Even the motel’s neon namesake, a once proud lady archer on a pole out front, now aims her bow carelessly towards the sky away from her motel.

For two years the Smith kids have run the Archer by themselves. Ever since their father died and their mother went into a coma. Two years away from their home in California. Two years in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin of all places.

Until the evening William Skelton - Billy Bones - arrives, demanding room 111, Cyrus’s room. Before the night is over, the walls have been torn off Dan’s room revealing mounds of important yellowed papers, the Archer is torched, Dan disappears, Billy Bones is dead, and Cyrus and Antigone are left with a pot-bellied lawyer talking about Acolytes, godchildren, heirs to an estate, and the Order of Brendan.

None of which makes any sense to Cy or Antigone. What is clear, however, is simple. Their brother has been added to the list of missing loved ones. The Archer has been added to the list of homes where they no longer live. People wanting to kill them are close. And all they have left is each other.

Which leads us back to the sneaky part. Just when I’m prepared to learn what an Acolyte is, the amount of the inheritance, the purpose of the Order of Brendan, and to continue this explosion filled adventure, in sneaks family, choices, and the very real possibility dying. Soon.

Cyrus, Antigone, and Dan’s father was killed in a storm, lost at sea and drowned off the coast of California where they used to live. Their mom swam into the freezing sea to find their father. Dan pulled her out. She never woke up and continues to lie in a coma. When Dan disappears, Cyrus and Antigone face losing another loved one and must rely each other - for strength, support, encouragement, and love - to face the oncoming challenges without losing sight of saving their mother and brother. But is the challenge worth it? Is the struggle to remain strong, to keep focused, and to stay alive worth the risk of losing another family member? Each knows the risks they take could cost them their last sibling. Wouldn’t it be easier to say no? To turn and run away from the Order of Brendan and Ashtown? To accept their losses in order to prevent further harm?

Which brings us to choices. Cyrus and Antigone face the age-old choice of doing what is easy vs. doing what is right. Turning away from the Order of Brendan would allow them to grieve for their family, remain safe, and stay together. But Dan has been given the Dragon’s Tooth, the Reaper’s Blade, with the power of death. Immortals can die and the dead can be raised with the tooth’s power. Enemies want it and will kill to get it. At one point Cyrus is offered his family in return for the tooth. Give the tooth (and all personal risk and responsibility) and save his family. Or keep the tooth (and the risk and responsibility toward a greater good) and possibly lose his loved ones. Easy? Or right?

And death. Dying. Billy Bones asks Cyrus, “How do you feel about Death?” (and can that question ever be asked, whether in real life or fanciful fiction, without personally contemplating the answer?) to which Cyrus responds, “How do you think I feel about it? Death sucks. I don’t like it. How do you feel about it?”

But William Skelton’s reply is the opposite of Cy’s. “People say you can’t run from Death. People lie. Running’s all you can do, kid. Run like Hell’s on your heels, because it is. And if you’re still running, well, then you’re still alive.” Later he continues, “You know what happens when you run too long? Death becomes . . . a friend, a companion on the road, a destination. Home. Your own bed. The place where your friends are waiting. You stop being afraid. You stop running.” That night Billy Bones stops running, giving the Dragon’s Tooth to Cyrus.

Now Cyrus and Antigone are the ones running.

N. D. Wilson draws on mythology (Jason used the Dragon’s Tooth to fetch the Golden Fleece) like author Rick Riordan in the Percy Jackson series. He also weaves in history (Amelia Earhart, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ponce de Le√≥n were all apparently members of the Order of Brendan) like The 39 Clues. In The Dragon’s Tooth Wilson has built a solid base for the five book Ashtown Burials series. The book has its share of action, but it isn’t nonstop. Wilson takes the time necessary to properly flesh out Ashtown, the Order of Brendan, and its history. Readers will get frustrated along with Cyrus and Antigone every time they hear “I’ll explain more later,” but significant gaps are filled by the end, and sufficient gaps are left open for subsequent books.

And if you’ve made it this far, hopefully you won’t be surprised when the choices and issues faced by Cyrus and Antigone hit so close to home.

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