March 26, 2015

Review: Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell

Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell
Published: 2013, Harper
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Tilda is not all that fond of the duties and responsibilities that come with being princess of Alder Brook. And she knows that her people are not that fond of the fact that their heir has a lame foot. What Tilda really wants to do is to be like her muse, the writer Boethius, and write great works that would have people remember her as a writer, rather than as the princess with the lame foot.

Through a combination of circumstances, Tilda finds herself a fugitive, unable to return to her homeland, and also in the company of her two friends eager to prove themselves by slaying dragons. Tilda begins crafting the Handbook for Dragon Slayers in the hope that it will establish her value as a writer. As for her lands, well, she figures she’s not a good princess anyway and is content to first travel with her dragon-slaying friends and then perhaps join a convent and devote her life to writing.

Handbook for Dragon Slayers is an adorable, unique fantasy sure to delight younger and older readers alike. It contains powerful messages about love, duty, and responsibility. Best of all, it contains a nuanced heroine who has to learn how to create balance between her wants and the needs of others.

The novel essentially essentially exists to tell the story of Tilda’s coming of age. At the beginning of the story, Tilda believes the only value she has is through her ability to read and copy novels, although she hopes to also write her own novels. She believes that if she wants to be remembered positively, it will have to be through her writing, because her lame foot completely defines her in person. It is only gradually that Tilda comes to realize that she’s much more than the sum of her parts, that she loses a bit of her self-depreciation and comes to accept that her intelligence, loyalty, bravery, stubbornness, and her good heart can also influence how others view her.

With such a heavy focus on Tilda’s growth, however, the characterization of the rest of the characters feels a little stunted. The villains are not given enough depth. Her friends Parzival and Judith are likable enough, but again rather superficially portrayed. The character that I most wish was further developed was Tilda’s mother. Her mother has a clear influence on Tilda’s expectations and attitude. Yet her mother is absent for basically the entire book. Tilda is left learning how to resolve her own needs with her mother’s expectations for a princess of Alder Brook on her own; of course, her mother doesn’t need to be present, but having that character would have propelled Tilda’s growth even more, I think. I suppose I can just hope that happens after the story ends.

The magical aspects of this novel primarily seem to serve as a means to help Tilda question the truths and assumptions of her world. More than a few parallels can be drawn between Tilda and dragons. And it’s hard not to appreciate the relationships she develops with the horses of the fairy hunt and a few dragons. After a lifetime of feeling not quite equal to her fellow humans, it is the magical creatures who act as the catalysts to draw Tilda out of her shell.

Haskell does not develop Tilda’s world enough for readers to gain a solid understanding, unfortunately. In some ways it feels like a typical fantasy world, the technological advances on a medieval level, with knights, dragons, and castles. But along with mentions of Boethius, the characters speak of Plato and the Roman Empire. Alder Brook and its territories are clearly based on medieval German lands, but the line between the fictional and the historical is blurred.

Overall I quite enjoyed this book. Tilda is a sympathetic heroine and one ultimately worthy of admiration. Haskell expertly blends her development and the magical aspects of the novel, which more or less makes up with lackluster secondary character development and a slightly confusing world. Still, for those not as picky as I (and even those who are) this is a delightful book.

Rating: 3.5 stars
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.

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