The Dragon Charmer: Love it or hate it

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Fern Capel Jan Siegel The Dragon CharmerThe Dragon Charmer by Jan Siegel

There is no middle ground when it comes to Jan Siegel’s novels: you either love them or hate them. Considering I love them, you might want to take this review with a pinch of salt as you may take my advice to read it and find that it is simply not to your taste. In any case, borrow before you buy and hopefully you’ll enjoy these books as much as I do. They are beautifully written, with intriguing ideas and careful plotting, and (in my humble opinion) are among the best books that the fantasy genre has to offer. In a world of Tolkien rip-offs, it is a rare thing to find a fantasy novel that transcends the clichés into something fresh and new, yet resonant with older traditions and mythologies.

In the previous novel Prospero’s Children, Fern Capel came into her inheritance as a witch, fell in love, bartered with a demon and traveled back in time to the final days of Atlantis in order to race evil powers for possession of the Lodestone. Now twelve years later she has done everything she can to put that traumatic summer firmly behind her. She wraps herself in a world of respectability, and is about to marry the charismatic Marcus Grieg, a man twenty years her senior. Returning to Yarrowdale with her best friend Gaynor Mobberley (the site of her adventures twelve years earlier) at her financee’s insistence, Fern begins to feel ancient powers emerging about her once more. These otherworldly forces are not so eager to let such a powerful witch out of their grasp, and the day before her wedding Fern falls into a mysterious coma whilst her spirit wanders far away.

Whilst Fern’s brother Will, the ex-wizard Ragginbone and Gaynor attempt to unravel the mystery to Fern’s illness, Fern herself finds herself keeping the strangest of company under the World Tree, where the heads of souls bound to purgatory hang like fruit on its branches. The two groups find themselves uncovering a long forgotten story of the dragon-charmers, a family of Atlantis that possessed the power to (obviously) charm dragons — and realize that there is every chance a dragon still exists somewhere in the world, waiting to be hatched. Whoever possesses such a powerful creature will wield a weapon that hasn’t been seen in the world for centuries, and there are several parties determined to get their hands on it.

Some readers have complained that Fern’s decision to turn her back on her powers is frustrating after the story arc of the previous story in which she gradually had to come to terms with them. To a point this is true, but I find it much more realistic that Fern would desire to forget the supernatural aspects of her life. Siegel has a good grip on Fern’s personality, and the actions of this twenty-something Fern is certainly true to the persona of her teenage-self. The events of Prospero’s Children were traumatizing for a young girl, and it makes perfect sense that the sensible and practical woman she’s grown into would reject her powers in day-to-day life — using them only when necessity demands it.

The book is somewhat slow-paced to start with: it is not till chapter five that Fern’s adventure really begins after she’s put into her magically-induced coma (and since the chapters are quite long, it takes a while). But the mystery, intrigue and suspense of the rest of the novel more than makes up for it. Intricately plotted, we are introduced to figures and conceits that are fully revealed later in the novel, at exactly the right time and place, some of which may or may not have a place in familiar mythology. Images, dreams, symbols, plot-twist, action — all are painstakingly strewn throughout the story and explored in Siegel’s beautiful poetic-prose. It isn’t just a gimmick, it fully enhances the story and is comparable only to Patricia McKillip.

The range of ideas at work in the story is truly breathtaking: its so tempting to start listing them, but that of course would ruin the enjoyment you would get out of discovering them yourselves. Let’s just say that Dragon-Charmer is a tapestry of rich and intricate ideas and concepts; you can almost sense that even the minor characters have lives (no matter how strange) outside the context of the story that is told.

But then again, you may hate Dragon-Charmer and its predecessor Prospero’s Children, as they are so unique that it’s hard to categorize and compare them with other books. All I can to is recommend you take the time to read them and hope that you’ll like them as much as I did.


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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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