The Dragon's Tooth by ND Wilson
Review by AT Ross
Following the wide-ranging success of his debut trilogy, the 100 Cupboards, YA fantasy novelist N. D. Wilson has returned with the first in a projected five-volume series entitled The Ashtown Burials. Cyrus and Antigone run the small, dilapidated Archer Motel with their older brother Daniel. But when a strange old man calling himself Billy Bones arrives, it isn’t long before adventure has engulfed the Smith siblings. After a single night, Billy Bones is dead, Daniel is missing and Cyrus and Antigone are swearing themselves to the Order of Brendan, an ancient, international secret society of explorers and adventurers committed to finding and preserving the world’s most incredible and mythological artefacts.
Thrust into an adventure they never asked for, Cyrus and Antigone are hunted by the minions of the madman Dr. Phoenix, who believes that, among other things, Billy Bones left the children the Dragon’s Tooth, said to have the power to raise the dead and slay those who are immortal. Meanwhile, the children seek refuge in Ashtown, a hidden school (which doubles as a prison for dangerous immortal beings) that will train them in the esoteric arts of the Order of Brendan. But this is, of course, no Harry Potter knockoff; they are not trained in the magical arts, but the art of adventuring in the vein of Indiana Jones.
The Dragon’s Tooth is a captivating novel from beginning to end, and is generally well paced. It kept me up reading well into the night, something which I cannot say about many books, and features a spectacular finish in the last hundred pages. Not to mention an ending that will have you trying to break into the Random House building to get a copy of volume two. Cyrus and Antigone are compelling protagonists with strong characterizations. They are believable as brother and sister, with a lot of realistic sibling snark, and the book hosts a number of other strong secondary characters, both good and bad, though the villains of the piece should get central kudos for being some of the more chilling antagonists for YA fiction in recent memory. Dr. Phoenix is particularly strong as the series’ central villain, a mad scientists to the core whose twisted creations serve him and do his bidding. But it is Dr. Phoenix’s main lackey who caught my attention most of all, Maximilian Robespierre, the one and only bloodluster who sparked the French Revolution; and yes, it really is the Robespierre, tweaked with a mythical backstory and who has lived for hundreds of years, sailing with Ponce de Leon to the Fountain of Youth in South America before being captured by the Order of Brendan and imprisoned for hundreds of years, then escaping to spark the French Revolution. He is one of the evil immortals who works for Dr. Phoenix.
Like many other YA fantasies today, The Dragon’s Tooth is about secret societies, gifted or destined children training in the esoteric arts, and provides a secret history of the world, relying much on mythology to build a central story from bits of historical data. The only difference is that Wilson does this far more intelligently than do most of the others, wrapping you in a whirlwind of literary allusions and symbols, incorporating mythology from all over the globe, mixing and matching from oriental and occidental with wanton relish and abandon and blending it seamlessly with solid elements from American mythic history. He knows his history and expects you to keep up; a lot of the references will be missed by many kids on the first reading, but Wilson still manages to keep the story clear regardless. Someone who isn’t well-read on the subject of mythology can still read and follow the book without it, though the references add meaning. Among the allusions I caught, we have several from Sumerian myths, including from the Epic of Gilgamesh; Antigone is the name of a Greek play, the sequel to Oedipus Rex; Cyrus was a Persian ruler who became a Gentile convert of Israel during the Prophetic/Exilic period of the Hebrew scriptures; the legend of Ponce de Leon’s discovery of the Fountain of Youth; the old man Billy Bones is a direct allusion to Treasure Island; Dr. Phoenix bears allusion to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; the Dragon Tooth itself is a reference to mythology and is several times referred to as the Resurrection Stone, making it an allusion to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; various Greek and Roman myths, along with references to Daniel Boone, Indiana Jones, and other Americana mythology, blending it all with a plethora of historical events. It is the depth of literary meaning and constantly poetic-prose that truly sets the book apart from competitors. There is real meat to this book, and it invites multiple readings in order to fully grasp what is going on, all encased in a highly entertaining, creative and thrilling package.
It would be remiss to finish any review of the book without mentioning some of the more central themes. Wilson has explored issues of immortality and resurrection in his 100 Cupboards series, and he continues this in The Dragon’s Tooth, though in a different way. But he also ventures into relatively unexplored territory in this latest novel, dealing with issues of racial and cultural prejudice. In an utterly bizarre marketing decision, Cyrus is depicted as being Caucasian on the book’s cover, while he and his sister are repeatedly described as being of a darker skin colour (possibly South American), from their mother’s side of the family. The Order of Brendan is generally ill-favoured towards them (they are called “mongrels” a few times), and no one wants to even acknowledge their presence when they enter a room. A monk goes so far as to start beating Antigone with a switch for the implied reason of racial prejudice. These racial themes are interwoven with the Order’s generally sneering attitude toward those who are not in the Order, looking down on them as inferior. It will be interesting to see how these issues are expanded and explored later in the series.
Sasha from San Francisco
It's the best book I've read in ages.
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