Books three and four in Chris d’Lacey’s The Last Dragon Chronicles are The Fire Eternal and Fire Star respectively. I’ve reviewed the first two separately, but as these two share many of the same problems, I’ve decided to review them together.
The first book, The Fire Within, introduced the major characters and the basic premise of the Last Dragon, Gawain, who died ages ago but whose lost Fire Tear might still play a role in today’s world. Connected, somehow, to that dragon are young Lucy Pennykettle and her mother Liz, who makes clay dragons, some of which are animate and have special powers. Their tenant David Rain gets mixed in with the dragon mystery, but mostly he and the others are involved in a plot about squirrels. This book is a bit of an outlier in the series, with very few dragons and a younger target age. The sequel, Icefire, keeps the focus squarely on the dragons. The plot becomes more mature and more complicated. We learn that there is a connection between dragons and polar bears and Gawain’s fire tear. A new love interest is added via Zanna, who turns out to be more than she first appears. And the book takes a darker turn with a full-fledged villain — Gwilanna — who seeks the fire tear for her own purposes.
Gwilanna continues to play a major role in Fire Star, kidnapping Lucy in an attempt to use her somehow in her plans to resurrect the long-dead Gawain. Zanna has also gone missing, disappeared somewhere in the Arctic where she and David had been working (David had returned due to Lucy’s abduction). G’reth, the wishing dragon, has also vanished, appearing in another dimension which is home to a transdimensional thought-based group known as the Fain, who have their own connections to dragons and to Earth and who may have decided to take interest and an active role once again. Unfortunately, the Fain have two factions and one, the Ix, doesn’t appear to wish Earth well. Meanwhile, David learns his writing (he’s working on a story involving polar bears and the Arctic) seems somehow to either predict near-future events or even possibly cause them; Liz’s long-lost love, Arthur, now a monk on a remote island, has discovered an ancient dragon relic and is having his own impact on time and events; and global warming is beginning to wreak havoc on the polar bear habitat which also happens to be where Gawain and his fire tear are.
The Fire Eternal picks up five years later with David, now a famous environmental author, having been missing ever since the close of Fire Star. The Ix have come up with a new and evil plan for Earth and for dragons; David and Zanna’s daughter Alexa is beginning to show signs of strange powers; a nosy journalist is trying to dig up just what really happened to David Rain; Gwilanna continues to plot; the weather is turning wild; and several groups: polar bears, the dragons of Wayward Crescent, the Pennykettles and David’s family, all must work together to stop a world-destroying calamity.
If that sounds like a lot is going on (and that’s not all of it) in these two books, well, a lot is going on in these two books. In fact, I’d argue way too much is going on. The plot complications in Icefire — the introduction of polar bears as guardians, Zanna as a new love interest, and Gwilanna’s plotting — did a nice job of adding tension and a darker, more mature tone to what had been a relatively charming but somewhat light concept. The plot was more involved, but still focused. In books three and four, however, the story feels like it is getting out of the author’s control somewhat. We’ve got extra dimensions, alien species, time manipulation, questions on cause and effect, characters vanishing left and right, zombie monks, didactic environmentalism (and I speak as someone who agrees with the general premise), characters and animals being possessed then unpossessed then possessed, plots within plots within plots, long-running complex set-ups, quantum physics, dark matter/dark energy, etc. That’s not even getting into the dragon mythology and history which gets layered upon again and again. It doesn’t feel particularly well thought-out. In fact, it feels a bit of a mess, and a bit like a stage set where it all looks good if you look at the front but take a closer look inside or behind and there isn’t much there. It’s exhausting to keep up.
Along with the basic problem of too much and too scattered plot, there are issues with pacing and plausibility, as well as a sense of arbitrary contrivance. Villains conveniently give up their whole plan because they’re “arrogant” and “know” the good folks can’t stop them. A character doesn’t reveal important information because “there was never any need to — before” or because he’d forgotten various things but his memory conveniently just “crystallized.” Magic becomes easier for characters when they need it to. Zanna has always been presented even before she knew about dragons as the goth girl with a sixth sense who believes in weird things, but she doesn’t think anything might be odd about the strange mark Gwilanna gave her that has never healed. David, who is supposed to be somewhat of a scientist, is surprisingly scientifically illiterate in basic cosmology. Meanwhile, other characters are conveniently well versed in physics, linguistics, or cosmology as needed. And so on. Suffice to say there are major plot holes or areas where the author’s manipulation is too strongly felt.
The characters are solid enough, if sometimes a bit slow on the uptake. Lucy remains a bit annoying, as she has been in previous books. The neighbor Henry, on the other hand, grows on the reader from book to book. The most interesting characters in many ways are the non-human ones, from Gwilanna (her unclear motivations and swinging back and forth between help and hindrance make her pleasantly complex) to the polar bears (a real sense of depth and dignity and a mostly wonderful sense of myth) to Bonnington the cat. Yes, the cat.
Finally, I’m not quite sure what the audience has become for these books. The first one, as mentioned, skews to the younger kids (8-10) with its focus on a sick squirrel and its overall light tone. Icefire clearly aimed higher with a more complicated and darker plot, though keeping younger elements such as the clay dragons and the simple characterization. But with books three and four, I’m not sure that most 10-13 year-olds are going to be able to follow the overly complex plot developments. Heck, I’m having a hard time following them. But while older kids may not have that issue (though I still think they’ll find it too much), it’s hard to imagine them responding well to the overly didactic plot, the relatively simple human characters, and the less-sophisticated nature of the clay dragons, which are kind of cutesy, to use a technical literary term (as opposed to the dragons of myth or the real dragons we start to see toward the end).
My own nine-year-old enjoyed book one, and found book two to be his favorite until he got to the fifth book. He didn’t (possibly couldn’t) finish Fire Star and didn’t care for much of The Fire Eternal, skimming the parts he didn’t like. I’m curious as to how book five got him back. Right now, I’m with him in that I’d say Icefire remains by far the strongest book — the most focused, the most tightly written. The Fire Eternal and Fire Star were a struggle to complete and I wish d’Lacey’s editor had told him he had lots of good ideas, but not all of them had to go into this series. Cutting out several plot lines, dropping about 200 pages from each book, and strengthening the characters would have served the story better, I think. At this point, the recommendation leans toward reading (or buying your kids) books one and two and stopping there, but we’ll see if d’Lacey redeems the series.