Ancient, Strange, and Lovely by Susan Fletcher (The Dragon Chronicles)

Whatever issues I have had with Susan Fletcher's Dragon Chronicles trilogy in the past, the one element which has always been absolutely solid has been the dragons! Majestic and beautiful adult dragons with their overwhelming presence, and of course the antics of exasperating, endearing draclings. So seeking for something relaxing to read in a rather stressful time, and bearing in mind my love of all things draconic, this book with its intensively poetic title and rather unique premise for continuing the series seemed absolutely perfect.

Fourteen year old Brin's life is not easy. It's not the omnipresent threat of the world’s pollution, or the way that her family's telepathic gift of communicating with birds makes her feel like a constant outsider. Brin's mother; conducting microbiological research in Alaska, has gone missing, and her father has gone to Alaska to search for her, leaving Brin, her five year old sister Piper and their two avian companions with Brin's prissy Aunt Pen. Soon enough Brin's father also stops calling. Even worse, the football sized egg Brin's Mother sent back from Alaska has started cracking, and Brin finds herself with a newly hatched baby lizard to deal with; a lizard which doesn't look like any other kind of lizard on earth, likely a member of a cryptid species; a rare and hitherto undiscovered type of animal which poachers will stop at nothing to get their hands on. Then the lizard starts breathing fire!

Looking at reviews on Goodreads, one fact which seems to have divided people on this book is its setting. Though listed as a sequel to Sign of the Dove, the book takes place in a world which at first glance looks like the modern day, complete with the same place names, internet, and even some of the same people such as Bill Gates and J. K. Rowling. Then however, it becomes apparent that the pollution in this world is even worse than that we're used to, with regular dust storms, swarms of migrating animals, a one in four cancer rate, and even a youth culture and music industry dominated by environmental concerns, including a goth like subculture of kids called Tants who wear cosmetic fake mutations.

So, it is apparently an alternative, or possibly very near future world, but one in which dragons exist, dragons which just so happen to exactly resemble the dragons mentioned in a set of fantasy novels; though Fletcher doesn't quite go as far as King does in The Dark Tower, and name check the titles or author of her work, the implication is clearly there.

Personally as I've said before, one thing I find fascinating about dragons is how they can fit into so many different types of story and so many different places, so for me, the setting wasn't as jarring as it seems to have been for others. Indeed, Fletcher said part of her thinking behind writing this book was just the fun of having a baby dragon in the world of microfibre dog coats, plastic pooper scoopers and smartphones.

My one minor issue with the setting (apart from a little confusion over where exactly the other Dragon Chronicles books fit in), is that Fletcher establishes this as a definitely less pleasant version of the world we know; some have even called it a dystopia, and yet shows little actual difference in people's everyday lives. For example, though regular dust storms are mentioned, nobody needs extra protective clothing, likewise a society with a one in four death rate from cancer and a massive risk of children being born with toxin related mutations probably would not be simply chugging along regardless, even when seen through the comparatively narrow perspective of a fourteen year old school girl; a fact even more obvious this side of the corona.

Speaking of perspective, the book is for the most part told in the first person from Brin's point of view, interspersed with the odd second person chapter dealing with other people tangential to the story. At first, I felt that much of Fletcher's slightly made up teen slang, such as "seismic" used as a superlative, or "phage", and "phaging", used as expletives felt a little forced. However once I realised that this is not actually our own world, this did make a bit more sense. I did not appreciate the way that Fletcher's teen speak did tend to truncate certain words for the hell of it, such as "lying in a foetal" to describe a foetal position, but she did include enough by way of poetry and atmosphere in the description to give things a touch of reality, especially when it comes to the practicalities of caring for an infant dragon.

Unfortunately, despite an interesting premise, a unique world and once more an adorable dracling; who unlike those in Sign of the Dove does not have to share the limelight with a toddler, I did have some major problems with the book's structure and characters.

The first problem is with Brin herself. Almost a redux of Kaeldra from Dragon's Milk, Brin mentions the vague feeling of being "an outsider", due to her ability to "ken", that is mentally communicate with birds, something which apparently others do not understand. It's not clear exactly why Brin feels this way, after all, the "kenning" is something she chooses to do, not something thrust upon her, therefore even if people saw her companion bird, (an otherwise very ordinary cockatiel called Stella), there is no reason why people would assume Brin's relationship was any different from that of any pet owner; particularly since it's not as if Brin carries Stella around with her all the time. Indeed, there are members of Brin's family such as Aunt Pen who choose not to use their kenning abilities at all, whilst Brin states outright that kenning is a joy. The one occasion we do see Brin at school, there is no evidence anyone else knows of her ability, and indeed the first thing we see is an older girl, Sasha, displaying overtures of friendship and giving her sage advice. Brin even notes that her lot at school was far better than odd looking or disabled kids (a fact I can personally confirm as a disabled person myself), and yet she still complains of her "loneliness" even as we see her form a friendship with Sasha. I do not know if Fletcher has a particularly vigorous editor (something which the book's extremely short six and a half hour's length might suggest), but the lack of any backstory here, or justification for why she feels this way really harmed Brin's character progression, and the idea that her friendship with Sasha was something new for her. Indeed, were I being cynical I might think that Brin's general sense of not belonging is a calculated attempt to appeal to as many teen readers as possible by referencing non specific angst, and thus turn Brin into a blank slate protagonist anyone could identify with, rather than a real person with her own history and journey.

As well as her occasional fits of feeling supposedly like an "outsider," Brin also mimicked Kaeldra in the way she sometimes seemed slightly less than intelligent. For example, she attempts to use the internet to find what a baby lizard eats, and only finds what a sick lizard eats, a strawberry formula called viorilite (what this stuff is we're never told). She substitutes her aunt's strawberry health drink, since obviously one strawberry flavoured formula is the same as another strawberry flavoured formula. Of course, the pragmatic and slightly icky descriptions of Brin (complete with teen slang), trying to attempt to bottle feed a baby dracling with a turkey baster full of pink gloop are definitely entertaining in themselves, however I suspect that Fletcher here was focused more on including fun events, than on the best way of fitting them into the plot.

Things progress relatively well with Brin taking care of the dracling, however very abruptly two hours in, she suddenly takes it into her head to take the dracling across America to a colleague of her parents' in anchorage, Alaska. Though this is apparently a world with full internet and wireless communication, including the ability to send photos and videos, Brin still decides to go herself since "the professor wouldn't believe her", despite her finding many sketchbooks of dragon skeletons by him in her mother's effects. Indeed, rather ironically, when she winds up in anchorage it is the professor who ends up rescuing her from a potential disaster, having already received electronic confirmation that the dragon exists from another source. Again, I suspect here this was a case of Fletcher wanting Brin to journey across the world with a dracling (just as some of her fantasy protagonists did), without exactly working out the best justification for it needing to happen.

The journey also presents problems for Brin's overall competence. Like Lyf in Sign of the Dove, Brin seems to spend most of her time being passed from one protector to another and the one time she attempts to strike out on her own, stowing away on a ferry, she ends up failing rather badly, indeed other than her taking care of the dracling, Brin herself is quite the damsel here, something which was understandable for a slightly spoiled 12 year old girl in a medieval society, but seems distinctly off for a fourteen year old girl of the early two thousands.

I can see what Fletcher was attempting with the book's extra chapters. Some of them, such as the perspective of Brin's mother's graduate student Taj, exist to offer new ideas into the book, several others exist to introduce characters who will intersect with Brin's story. The problem however, is that most of these intersections ended up robbing the story of tension. For example, on one occasion, we see Brin's friend Sasha being sent to meet her, and so Brin's lamb-like trot into trouble in the next chapter is immediately stopped by her friend. Indeed, it seemed that for virtually everyone who isn't Brin in this book, all their plans went surprisingly smoothly. One section, in which Brin escapes some angry pursuers by diving into the truck of a young man who was offering her a lift, who fortunately for her happened to be a previously setup nice guy, stretched the bounds of authorial contrivance quite considerably; particularly since said nice guy didn't reveal to Brin that he knew who she was, or even tell her his name, simply opened the door and she hopped straight in, (obviously, fourteen year old girls getting into trucks with men they don't know always works out right). In fairness to Fletcher, I can see the point in showing how a certain person got to a certain point to affect the plot, however for purposes of preserving suspense, often she might have simply been better going for the hoary old cliché of having the cavalry appear over the hill unexpectedly, than have the reader always aware that they're on the way.

This undercutting of tension through extraneous chapters even manages to make the mystery of what happened to Brin's parents hardly a mystery at all, which really diminishes the impact of the book's climax.

The book does contain some amazing ideas, in particular, the idea that a dragon's saliva contains bacteria which could completely break down pollutants. However, very little is done with these ideas. Indeed, I wonder if there is somewhere a longer and more complex draught of this book, which features corporate and scientific interest in the dragon, denial of its abilities, and all the complex and messy politics of pollution reparation, most of which got dropped on the cutting room floor.

Brin's part of the climax works in terms of Brin having awesome experiences, however not in terms of Brin actually contributing much to the situation beyond standing around holding the dracling. It's unfortunate that the main actor in the climax is a character we've seen comparatively little of, despite him having a potentially more urgent character arc than Brin's, and one which relates to the closest thing this book has to a villain, though even he is fairly ineffective.

Indeed, the book's ending is so open-ended (especially when compared to her other books' fairy tale endings), and with so many ideas, characters and themes not addressed, I really wonder if Fletcher was planning a direct sequel.

All in all, the phrase which most comes to mind when I think of this book is wasted potential. A slightly whiny damsel protagonist being passed around between more competent people, tense situations undercut by already having seen their resolution in a none main character perspective chapter, and above all, such likable characters as Piper, and such unique ideas as a pollution destroying dragon given absolutely no time to breathe at all. Even the dracling himself doesn't get a name, being constantly called "Mister Lizard" or "the critter" throughout the text, and eventually being named for a dragon from Sign of the Dove.

I don't know if Fletcher was under a time crunch when writing this, whether her editor was particularly harsh, or whether she planned another book in the series which hasn't materialised, but for whatever reason, this one was quite the fizzle.

That being said, the main reason I read this, adorable dracling antics, was indeed something we got in spades, and I admit I am certainly amused by the thought of trying to get a dog coat and extendable lead on a dracling. So, for the weird situation, likable characters and above all the dragon, this one might still be worth a try, even if it feels sadly far less than what it could've been.

6/10 More like elderly, slightly odd and nice

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6.1/10 from 1 reviews

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