Sign of the Dove by Susan Fletcher (The Dragon Chronicles)

(6.9/10) Spare the dragon, spoil the child

While I had been slightly disappointed with Flight of the Dragon Kyn, I had higher hopes of Sign of the Dove. After all it was a sequel not a prequel, featured the return of some characters we remembered from Dragon’s Milk, and above all apparently included the sort of adorable, exasperating dracling antics  which had made the first volume of the trilogy so memorable and was sadly missing from the second.

Sign of the Dove takes place seven years after Dragon’s Milk following the adventures of Lyf, Kaeldra’s now twelve-year-old sister. Though cured of her vermilion fever, the titular Dragon’s Milk has left Lyf with green eyes and the ability to mentally commune with both birds and dragons. This puts her in considerable danger however since Alythia has been invaded by a Craggish queen who is offering large bounties for both dragons and those who can communicate with them, as she believes feeding the hearts of dragons to her warriors will make them invincible.

The book opens as Lyf is forced to flee into hiding with the resistance movement, the Sign of the Dove, a group who seek to protect the few clutches of hatching dragons from the Crags long enough for the young dragons and their mothers to fly across the northern sea to the dragon’s homeland. The first thing to say about Sign of the Dove therefore, is that Lyf is probably the most likable and well-drawn protagonist of the series, which is rather strange considering that in many ways Lyf should by rights be a less than appealing character. A combination of an early childhood illness, two doting older sisters and a nauseatingly over protective mother have resulted in Lyf leading a decidedly pampered existence.
Though perhaps not spoiled in the sense of being selfish, Lyf’s general expectations of life and a perception of herself as always delicate and in need of protection make Lyf a far less motivated character than either Kara or Kaledra. Lyf spends most of the early part of the book being passed from person to person looking for someone to take care of her, something which gets progressively more difficult as circumstances lead her father and father away from safety. As well as learning to take care of herself, Lyf is also forced to take on responsibility in the form of a whole parcel of baby draclings and Kaeldra’s three-year-old son Owen, something which at first, she literally tries to run away from, Fletcher herself indeed describes Lyf as “yellow bellied” for this reason. I have criticised Fletcher’s characterization in the past, and yet here with Lyf she is spot on. Even at the start of the book when Lyf is at her most dependent she is still distinctly likable as well as highly realistic. She genuinely wants to do the right thing; but believes herself to be profoundly unqualified to do it, indeed one section in which another character points out to Lyf that yes she could indeed have just walked away and abandoned both Owen and the draclings actually takes Lyf by surprise, since while she does spend her time wishing she could find someone older and more knowledgeable who would both take care of her and her charges, the thought of turning her back on them entirely never occurs to her.
As the plot progresses and Lyf’s options for safety become fewer, she experiences a number of moments of discovery which are simply a joy to read, such as when she overhears one unpleasant hunter describing her as “a cosseted milk coddle” which leads her to decide to strike out alone and evade capture, or when she is able to laugh deprecatingly at her earlier unwillingness to fetch water from a stream since her mother had always told her she was too delicate to perform hard work. Even her one breakdown part way through the book is definitely in character and quite understandable, especially given that Lyf is just twelve, which is quite a contrast to Kaeldra’s rather self-obsessed complaints in Dragon’s Milk. I am also pleased to say that some of the inequities that affected both Kaeldra and Kara never occur with Lyf, as she is not prone to flaky judges or changes of wing like Kara, neither  did she miss anything particularly obvious in circumstances the way the two previous protagonists did.

Given that the book is very much Lyf’s journey, the construction of the plot ties extremely well into that journey which is why the book flows rather better than either of the previous entries, feeling neither too ponderous, nor for the most part; too brief. Fletcher also recognizes the need to show a wider perspective than Lyf’s, particularly when we might want to know what characters like Kaeldra are up to, and so each chapter is prefaced by the account of a harper relating the tale of Lyf’s adventures at a later time. This not only provides a little comic relief, but also is an extremely good way of providing background and other viewpoints without cluttering Lyf’s adventures with alternative perspectives.

Though Lyf’s story is a compelling one with a progression deeply tied to its central character, one problem I did have was the level of threat and danger in the book. While on the one hand an invading army constantly seeking Lyf makes the whole book distantly tenser, especially with the fact that most ordinary people are a potential threat thanks to the high price of the bounty on Lyf, on the other hand given that Lyf spends much of the story shuttling between safe houses, the actual immediate sense of real physical danger is rather less than we would expect. This isn’t to say every book needs to be full of great escapes or prospects of imminent injury, but in a story about a secret resistance movement in an invaded land it was a little odd we didn’t see a bit more evidence of that invasion being an issue to the people of Alythia, indeed the invaders are (with the exception of their dragon hunting), surprisingly well behaved. Even at the beginning of the book, the Craggish soldiers hunting for Lyf are fairly polite, and given the unpleasantness Kaeldra went through in Dragon’s Milk when people realized that she was hiding valuable dragons it seemed slightly strange Lyf wasn’t in more danger.

This safety also meant the closest thing the book has to a villain barely makes an impression, and indeed the Craggish queen who is the cause of all the trouble never actually appears.

That being said Fletcher is too careful a writer for Sign of the Dove to be a completely vanilla adventure story, and there is at least one nasty surprise - even nastier given that surprise follows a rather light-hearted pantomime escape (it even involves hiding in laundry baskets).

Also, though the villainy scale was a little low in this book, several of the characters we meet along the way have rather more personality than Fletcher has given her supporting players previously, especially those who return from Dragon’s Milk and show the effects of their meetings with Kaeldra and the earlier clutch of draclings. One particular highlight for me was that for the first time we get to witness a dragon hatching, and see what a newly hatched dracling is like and how it relates to older draclings, something Fletcher depicts in a wonderfully down to earth way that makes me strongly suspect she is familiar with animals.

Stylistically, though the pacing in this book, especially with how it is tied to Lyf’s development is extremely good, I do wish Fletcher had taken a little more time over certain aspects. In particular while Sign of the Dove has a whole bunch of draclings, some of whom do have quite distinct personalities I definitely would have appreciated a little more attention spent on them, since many of them rather faded into the crowd. Likewise, while Owen is that rare thing, a literary toddler who manages to be a distinct character in his own right and be both appealing and exasperating, I did rather feel that some of the development on Lyf’s need to care for the draclings got slightly side lined into Owen, though as one major aspect of Owen’s character was an unexpected part of the book’s conclusion this was understandable.

Speaking of the conclusion, I do wish the final section of the book had been a little longer. While Lyf’s development through the proceeding plot is extremely good, when she does finally decide roughly half an hour before the book’s ending that she needs to step up and do what should be done the plot did not really allow her to have the impact that her development deserves. This is because the effect of her resolution mostly boils down to happening to have met a nice boy who has a fishing boat and a convenient group of friends.

Though the final conflict itself, how it ties into the plot (especially surrounding Owen), and some of Lyf’s actions involving her relationship with the draclings and her abilities are definitely satisfying and appropriately realized, I do wish Fletcher had spent more time on introducing the boy’s friends and making Lyf more of a catalyst and less of a passenger here. As well as Lyf’s own actions, the lack of a strong threat or a villainous presence in the book also made the ending feel a trifle flat, indeed the invaders quite literally pack up and go home.

Finally, the by now expected epilogue, in which Lyf (like Fletcher’s other two protagonists), ends up married and expecting children and had nothing more to do with dragons also seemed more than a little trite, if not actively disappointing. If anyone was having an adventure that was just beginning it was Lyf, and of all three protagonists it is Lyf who I could see having a more outgoing life later.

I do find the Puff the Magic Dragon style implications of the endings all three Dragon Chronicles books a little worrying, namely that the wonder and beauty of dragons are a lovely thing when young, but once a girl grows up enough to meet a nice boy and start having babies, dragons leave the picture. Indeed, given that both Kaeldra and Lyf spend most of their time taking care of baby draclings then get married and have babies of their own there does seem to be a fairly strong implication that dragons are things of childhood when a girl prepares to be a mother, and motherhood equals “happily ever after” with no more need for dragons.

Of course there are many people (of both genders), who are very happy as parents, but certainly I have friends who combine both being a parent and maintaining a love of dragons, and of course there are also people who simply don’t want to have children and are quite happy without, and given Susan Fletcher’s conscious intention to write fairy tales with non traditional roles for girls, it is a little odd that not one of her characters (especially Lyf with her journey of self-realization), achieved happiness in some other way or at least had a slightly wider field of interest as an adult. I was therefore sorry that even though we hear that Kaeldra has spent time saving clutches of draclings, for most of Sign of the Dove Kaeldra is pregnant and very much out of the action.

Of course, it is likely that as someone who is married to a lady who loves dragons almost as much as I do, and who would definitely rather have draclings than children, my opinion of Fletcher’s endings is coloured by personal bias here.

Sign of the Dove is quite literally the sequel to Dragon’s Milk. It contains returning characters, returning themes and even a similar premise. That being said, it features a far more likable protagonist who has a clear and distinct journey to go through, and a far tighter overall structure, even if I did find some aspects and implications of the ending a little perplexing.

Though perhaps not a concluding volume in the typical sense, Sign of the Dove is still my favourite of the trilogy, and again is highly recommended to anyone with a fondness for draclings (whether married or not).

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Susan Fletcher's The Dragon Chronicles series

Dragon's Milk

The Dragon Chronicles

Flight of the Dragon Kyn

The Dragon Chronicles

Sign of the Dove

The Dragon Chronicles

Ancient, Strange, and Lovely

The Dragon Chronicles

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