Friday, 25 April 2014

Dragon Academy by Diane Nelson

Review by Bill Kirton.

We all know dragons don't exist, right? Well, once you've read this, you'll maybe reconsider. When the last pod of Greywing dragons is discovered, the scientists of the Bureau of Land Management who are studying them are concerned to find that they're suffering from parasitic worms and in danger of dying out completely. 

Husband and wife team, Dietrich and AnnaLise, run a riding school in New Jersey. When Dietrich's sister-in-law, Berit, who's an Adjunct Professor in Large, Dangerous Animals with Anger Management Issues at UNLV, asks them to look after Michael and Nikita, two of the youngsters from the pod, they agree on condition that Berit's son, Nick, comes for the summer to help them. 

Transporting the dragons from Nevada to New Jersey is an epic in itself, with the truckers BobbyRay and BillyBob unused to the habits and feeding needs of their cargo and the dragons' tendency to set fire to things. But when the dragons arrive and settle in, the author focuses on the developing relationships between all the people involved and the two dragons. At the centre are the two couples - Nick and Maxie, who's a pupil at the school, and Nikita and Michael. The fascination is that there's an interplay of jealousy between dragons and people. Nick and Nikita start building a relationship, which makes Michael angry, but Michael, in turn, displays a clear affection for Maxie. And so the story builds, with sub plots and adventures, culminating in a glorious set piece involving the military, the scientists, a massive forest fire and the search for Michael among the flames. 

Summaries of this sort do no justice to the book's impact. There's humour, tenderness, anger, guilt, love and many more emotions in both people and dragons. Simultaneously, there's an attention to detail in the descriptions of riding horses and dragons which brings an intense realism to the whole reading experience. As they decide how best to saddle a dragon, there are explicit considerations of the nature and textures of scales, wing membranes and shoulders. We learn how the valves in their nostrils are adapted to the flames of plasma they blow out. And, gradually, through it all, Nick also realises that he and Nikita are communicating through telepathy. 

This disarming combination of the fantastical (dragons, telepathy) and the real (harnesses, anatomical details) really does make us suspend our disbelief. We care about what happens to dragons and people, we laugh and suffer with them. As the teenage anxieties of Nick, anxious to experience a `date' - i.e. a movie and pizza with Maxie - increase, so the dynamics of the relationship between Nikita and Michael develop also. The book ends with Nick being forced to make a difficult decision. It also leaves room for further adventures. 

If you believe in dragons already, this book will delight you; if you don't, you might well after you've read it, and it'll delight you anyway.

It’s aimed at the YA audience, but I’m well over half a century beyond that and I enjoyed it.