Dragon's Milk by Susan Fletcher
I like dragons! Whether the haughty, poison spewing Robin Hobb variety, or the myriad and diverse range seen in Cressida Cowell's books, or the classic Anne McCaffrey friendly thread burners, not to mention wicked old Smaug, I freely confess I have a bit of a thing for dragons.
So when my lady recommended me a book which involved the singularly interesting prospect of a girl having to first milk a dragon, and then babysit her draclings in payment, I jumped at the chance, despite it being nominally aimed at a teenaged audience (not something I particularly care about when choosing what I'm going to read). Indeed just the use of the term "draclings" for baby dragons enchanted me enough to want to read the book.
Apparently Susan Fletcher developed Dragon's Milk out of two main ideas. Firstly, the rather well trodden observation that girls in fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are not exactly ones for acting courageously, and secondly that the most courageous thing which Susan Fletcher could imagine in her life was babysitting four active children, something I really can't disagree with having absolutely no skill with children whatsoever; animals, that's another story.
The protagonist is fifteen year old Kaeldra, a green eyed outcast in her adopted home of Elethia, born with the hereditary gift of dragonsaying, the ability to communicate telepathically with dragons. When her foster sister Lyf becomes ill, Kaeldra is forced to go and trade with the dragon Fiori who agrees; albeit after some bartering, to only provide milk if Kaeldra will babysit her draclings.
Unfortunately, in a world where dragons are not only seen as an endless menace to civilization, but prized for their body parts’ magical properties, keeping the draclings safe is not an easy task.
By far the highlight of this book is the way Susan Fletcher deals with dragons. Borrowing from Peter Dickinson’s Flight of Dragons for their anatomy and biology (something I can only approve of since I absolutely adore the 1982 film), her dragons are beautifully real. This applies both to their personalities and their presentation, indeed even in her initial meeting Fiori, the mother dragon is a wonderfully capricious and overwhelming presence. The scenes of Kaeldra caring for three adorable yet most definitely inconvenient and ever hungry draclings, the inquisitive Pyro, the rambunctious Ember and the gentle Singe manage to strike that ineffable balance between being endearing enough to be genuinely sweet, and yet never dropping into the saccharine or unrealistically cloying, indeed Kaeldra's frequent exasperation with her charges feels very much like a writer with personal experience.
In addition to the dragon's distinct personalities however, Fletcher also is reminiscent of Hobb in the way she considers how dragons would fit ecologically and socially into their environment. Each chapter begins with a number of quotations of anything from medical books to recipe books to old legends pertaining to dragons. The way that Fletcher presents dragons as both extremely awesome and yet highly vulnerable to a variety of cunning dragon slaying methods is genuinely fascinating, and creates most of the darker tones of the book, and the question of how dragons can fit into an increasingly more human world is a genuinely poignant one.
The problem is that while her dragons and the conflicts surrounding them are extremely compelling and complex, for example one scene in which Kaeldra is forced to flee a kind family who've taken her in for the night after one of the draclings attacks and kills their dog, Fletcher did not seem to extend this sort of complexity to her human characters.
Kaeldra is a foreigner living in Elethia, and her complaints of being tall and fair haired rather than short and dark haired like those around her that begin the book did not make Kaeldra an easy protagonist to like, particularly since though Kaeldra details her perceived slights and lack of romantic interest from local boys, we never actually see anyone other than her foster mother actually treat her badly because of them, (and since her foster mother is an unreserved harpy this does not count too much). Likewise the final resolution of this conflict where Kaeldra is literally told "be yourself" had the blatant quality of moralising and was therefore intrusive and quite unwelcome. With Kaeldra it often struck me that Fletcher was attempting to deliberately write character conflicts, rather than letting them naturally arise through the story, often making such conflicts feel somewhat superfluous, for instance she bemoans the fact that she needs to go and ask a dragon for milk and then does, and when required to leave her home she similarly complains and then goes through anyway. While I do applaud Fletcher's intention to make Kaeldra a reluctant heroin, unfortunately Kaeldra felt more like a serial whiner (at least at the start of the book before she had dragons to deal with), which did not make her for the most part pleasant to be around. Of course, to an extent authors showing teenaged characters must deal with some degree of emotional upheaval since it is part of the territory, however with Kaeldra Fletcher's touch was often a little too heavy, dipping almost into self obsession.
It's also likely Kaeldra's character flaws wouldn't have been as much an issue if much of the rest of the cast weren't something of a one note affair. While I can accept that Lyf, Kaeldra's youngest sister and the one whose illness prompts the need for dragon's milk is something of a standard cute child due to her illness being an impetus for the plot, the rest of Kaeldra's family similarly are defined also by just one character type. Her Grand’Mere is wise and kindly, her foster mother is a shrew, and her second youngest sister a bubbly outgoing girl.
This issue is particularly serious with Yorg, an apprentice dragon slayer, indeed you can almost predict by the fact that he appears, is handsome and a nice guy and yet someone whom Kaeldra dislikes on site that he and Kaeldra are going to fall in love. I also didn't like the fact that when we got Yorg's back-story it turns out he was being trained as a warrior but couldn't bring himself to strangle a puppy, really, how male stereotype can we get, so joined the order of dragon slayers instead. While the potential for a dragon slayer learning to love dragons could've been a wonderful development, since from the second we see Yorg, playing with Lyf and ever friendly it is fairly clear there is absolutely no possibility of him slaying any dragons, much less the adorable draclings, meaning that this plot turn completely lacks tension.
That being said, one thing which Fletcher does do extremely well is convey a sense of absolute urgency about the world. I got the distinct idea that Kaeldra and the draclings were in definite danger, and some sequences in which Kaeldra must escape pursuit were very tense, especially for the way that the world is large, unfriendly, and Kaeldra (despite her ability to talk to dragons), is anything but super human, a turn of plot I can only applaud especially with the tendency of writers of children's or ya fiction to always take the easy route where solving problems with magical powers is concerned.
Most of the issues with the book in general however are down to one major thing, the style. Though she is not overly bold with her descriptions of emotion, and though her descriptions do give a real sense of place and feeling; I particularly liked her use of senses in both describing landscape and Kaeldra's life on an Elethian farm and the mental speak of dragons, Fletcher’s style is far too brief and abrupt. At six hours, the book is fairly short even for it's intended YA audience, and over all the rhythm of the narrative is choppy. This means scenes establishing character subtleties which might have existed if the book were longer are simply not present, and most characters basically are what they appear on the surface.
One of the darkest and most tragic turns of plot occurs because Kaeldra simply trusts a character who's untrustworthiness is presented so clearly it makes Kaeldra appear rather dense for not spotting it (my lady was quite furious with Kaeldra for this).
Of course, it is not necessary for all characters to be complex and multilayered, some people are indeed in life pretty much as they appear, and there are occasions when running through archetypes is indeed fun. However since Dragon's Milk doesn't have the stylistic flair or poetry to pull off simplicity, much of the characterization just feels flat even for a YA novel.
On the one hand, the book's ending concerning the dragons is everything as expected. An epic confrontation and a situation which Kaeldra resolves believably with information she received during the course of the book. On the other I was actually rather disappointed that despite Susan Fletcher's desire to go against fairy tale cliché, Kaeldra finishes back on the farm as a wife and expectant mother with a good husband and the previously mentioned moral lesson, albeit still on the lookout for future dragon hatchlings. This isn't to say that everyone should finish by becoming ruler of a country or moving to a far off land or finding a new purpose, and having been married only three months ago myself I can hardly deny that it's an amazing thing and one of the major turning points in my life. However the Kaeldra we meet at the start of the book, bemoaning the fact that no man will like her due to her height and fair hair, and the Kaeldra we meet at the end of the book who has acquired a husband and child and is no longer bothered by her height and fair hair hasn't really changed too much, indeed were I being cynical I'd say basically she stopped whinging. Again, maybe I would've accepted this change had the book been a little longer or Kaeldra's feelings of not fitting in presented slightly more as a real problem and slightly less as a stream of complaints, but as it is the ending felt more than a little trite, indeed quite surprising that Susan Fletcher stated she consciously wanted to avoid the traditional roles for women in fairy tales and then went through the "and she was happily married to a transparently nice guy male love interest ever after" type of ending.
All in all I can say I enjoyed Dragon's Milk. Despite a number of inadequacies, the book's main aim, to present some absolutely wonderful dragons, the conflicts and world surrounding them and the problems which a person might have encountering them it does extremely well, and I do feel had Susan Fletcher (or her editor), given a little more time to let her characters breathe the book could’ve been exceptional, indeed I very much hope her other books are longer for this reason.
I would however still recommend Dragon's Milk, especially to all those whom, like me, would love to have a dracling of their own.
This Dragon's Milk book review was written by Dark
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