The Fire Within is the opening book of Chris d’Lacey’s Last Dragon Chronicles. Interestingly enough, despite the series’ title, and the dragon on the cover, there are surprisingly few dragons in the book. In fact, one could make an argument that the dominant creatures are squirrels. Yes, squirrels. But somehow, it works (dragons play a much larger role in succeeding books).
The novel begins when David, a college student, takes a room with the Pennykettles — mother Liz and young daughter Lucy. Liz makes clay dragons in her upstairs studio, called the Dragon Den, and the house is filled with them. David finds the pair a bit odd, especially the way they speak of the dragons as if they were alive. When Liz makes David a special dragon, Gadzooks, which she claims will help him with his writing (and in fact it does inspire him to write a kid’s story for Lucy), things become even stranger and David begins trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the Pennykettles and their dragons. In many ways, this is secondary to the story David is writing about a sick squirrel, a story based on actual events — perhaps even predicting actual events — involving the mysteriously vanished squirrels that used to live in the Pennykettle yard, a crotchety neighbor who’d just as soon kill any squirrel he sees as save it, a young woman who works in an animal rescue shelter, and a fearsome crow.
I confess the focus on the squirrels took me by surprise, but nearly as surprising was how effective the squirrel story was. It does lend a younger-age feel to the book as a whole; I’d say it’s best suited for 8-10 year olds (younger kids would enjoy it read to them) despite its 300+ page length. The second novel, Icefire, is much more complex and mature, not to mention much more focused on the dragons themselves. And it appears, from what my nine-year-old says as he currently works his way through the series, that later books darken in tone and become more complicated.
The Fire Within, though, has a nice light touch; charmingly whimsical might be the best way to describe it. D’Lacey’s writing is simple but fluid, smooth, and quick-moving. The mystery is not particularly dark or suspenseful but is engaging. The main “villain” of the piece — the gruff next-door neighbor — makes a good villain for younger kids, but is actually out-menaced by the large crow. Characterization is slight, and Lucy gets a bit annoying, but with five more books, there is room for growth and development. The plot is perhaps a bit predictable in this first book, but d’Lacey veers away from where the reader might think things were going at the very end, and later books throw a few more curves. Structurally, d’Lacey does a nice job of mixing things up a bit by interweaving David’s squirrel story, and the backstory of the dragons via dreams and overheard conversations, with the more mundane real-time events. The mythic feel of the dragon history does a nice job of counterbalancing the lighter, younger storyline about the squirrels. I confess I wish d’Lacey had opted not to use names from the Arthurian legends; they are more distracting than evocative or effective. This borrowing of well-known names from legends and myths, a technique I’ve seen other writers use as well, seems a bit of a cheap way to lend a story some mythic “gravitas.”
As mentioned, the second story, Icefire, is heavier and darker in tone and is focused much more on dragons — it’s almost like a wholly different series. Most kids I think will be happy to keep reading, but The Fire Within stands up fine on its own as a younger YA book, so long as they don’t mind being left hanging about some of the dragon details. Recommended.
Review addendum by Bill’s son, Kaidan Capossere, age 9:
I’d rank it a four. I thought it was good and suspenseful. I liked the characters, especially Lucy, David, and the dragons. My favorite part was when the squirrels, crow, and cat were fighting. I was surprised it was about squirrels and would have liked a little bit more about the dragons, though I didn’t mind that it was so much about squirrels. I liked learning about the early history of the dragons. It started a bit slow but picked up when they began trying to catch the squirrel. So far this is my third favorite (I’m on book five) of the series. Book two is my favorite, book five is great, and this one is almost as good as five.