The Mark of the Dragonfly, a Middle Grade novel by Jaleigh Johnson, starts off with a wonderfully evocative premise and setting: a world where at regular intervals over a particular region, “meteor storms” rain down artifacts from other worlds amidst a haze of poisonous green dust. After the impacts are over and the dust has settled, “scrappers” head out in a mad race to claim whatever odd (and usually broken) objects might be sold to traders. Entire towns have risen up at the edges of the storm region and it is one of these that we are introduced to our protagonist, Piper. A 13-year-old girl with a talent for fixing machines and the occasional artifact, Piper has been living on her own ever since her father died far off in a factory in Noveen, capital of the Dragonfly territories, a rival kingdom.
Trying to save a young friend desperate for a big strike, Piper ends up caught out in one of the biggest storms yet. She does rescue her friend, but also saves a young girl named Anna from a passing caravan wrecked in the storm. Anna, though, along with having lost most of her memory, is being pursued by a relentless man she calls “the wolf,” and soon Piper and Anna are forced to flee Scrap Town 16 aboard the 401 Locomotive, whose route ends in Noveen. Anna is marked as someone protected by the king of Dragonfly, and Piper hopes to gain a handsome reward by returning her to the capital city. Along the way, Piper faces off with slavers and train raiders, spars with Gee — the young head of security on the train, and learns a truth she couldn’t have ever imagined about not only Anna, but herself.
I loved that opening concept: the idea of these strange remnants of other worlds (early examples include a music box and a copy of The Wizard of Oz) crashing to earth during the meteor storms, the mythology (no longer much believed) surrounding it concerning the goddess who abandoned Solace and left a hole in the sky behind her, as well as the ecosystem that has grown up around it — scrappers and traders and collectors. To my surprise though, and admittedly somewhat to my disappointment, Johnson drops all this after the opening chapters and for the rest of the novel, about 90 percent of it, it’s almost never mentioned again.
This seems a missed opportunity to me, for while the rest of The Mark of the Dragonfly moves along pleasantly enough, there isn’t a lot to distinguish it story and character-wise from all the other Middle Grade novels out there. And so in short order we have:
- the spunky young heroine who is on her own and unsure of herself and who must find the inner resources she’ll need to survive in this world.
- the seemingly requisite young romance that begins with sparring and ends with kissing (believe me, I give nothing away with this; anyone who has read two or three YA novels will see this coming immediately).
- a hard outer shell slowly melting away so our character can open herself to the world and to a new band of stalwart and good-hearted strangers-soon-to-be-friends.
- a sacrifice or two
- an aristocratic bad guy who has lost his sense of humanity/morality and is willing to do what it takes for “the greater good”
Now Johnson does a fine job with all the above. Piper is an engaging, winning character; Anna a nice little mix of mystery (though I think a decent number will tease out that mystery before the big reveal), vulnerability, and quirkiness; Trimble, the engine’s fireman, has a nice sense of depth for a secondary character; and if Gee is mostly as expected for the role of young boy-eventually-boyfriend, he’s likable enough. The novel is nicely paced, moving at a good clip when it needs to but slowing down at appropriate moments, and the prose, if nothing to remark upon, is highly readable, disappearing smoothly behind the story.
As I said, it’s a pleasant journey and I enjoyed my time with The Mark of the Dragonfly. But it lacked the richness that could have separated it from the pack of Middle Grade more than it simply being a nicely written and enjoyable story. Those artifacts and meteor storms were particularly rich for mining (no pun intended). And we see other glimpses of might-have-beens throughout: a non-human race that communicates telepathically, people with “talents,” mention of exploration attempts, class/economic issues. It isn’t that I wanted Johnson to tell a different story, the story I wanted to hear. But I did want her to spice her story with a few more exotic elements, or to use a slightly heavier hand with those spices we barely get a taste of here.
Or to use a different analogy, I wanted her to weave in these threads more fully so as to create a more complete, cohesive, and distinctive pattern. As it is, the elements such as the slavers, raiders, etc. feel arbitrarily dropped in as isolated plot triggers that pass through and are completely forgotten once their purpose has been served. That, combined with the familiar nature of so many of the plot/character elements, left me with that odd sense of disappointed satisfaction — a “good enough” Middle Grade book that had clear potential for more. Still “good enough” isn’t bad, and I don’t want to come across as too harsh here. I did, as mentioned, enjoy my time reading The Mark of the Dragonfly and if it misses out on some chances to be better than it was, it still earns a recommend.