Dragonhaven

DRAGONHAVEN 

By Robin McKinley
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner

    Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows proved that there is such a thing as a sure thing in the publishing business. After all it sold millions of copies before anyone had a chance to finish it. With adult fiction, however, a big name and a proven track record is only enough to ensure pretty good sales for a week or two. Bad reviews or bad word of mouth can put an end to publisher's hopes and dreams. On the other hand, despite endless energetic attempts, the publishing equivalent of lightning still can't be bottled. Steeping books in vampires, dragons, and relationship stuff, is a good bet for young adult fantasy. Yet the ingredients do not truly make the hit. That being said, a familiar name, a proven track record, and proven topics, do mean a book will do at least pretty well.  When it comes to being a bona fide publishing phenomenon however, genuine magic is still required, thank goodness.
   With Dragonhaven, Robin Mckinley, well regarded reteller of Arthurian legends and other folklore, turns her attention to a different subject and a more modern setting than her previous work. Dragonhaven refers to Smokehill National Park, in which The Makepeace Institute of Integrated Dragon Studies is housed. Mckinley's Dragons are essentially a highly regulated endangered species around which a political battle has raged. Considered too dangerous and expensive to protect, or even to exist, by much of the public, but considered vitally worthy of study and protection by scientists and the liberal minded, the scope for allegory here is as large as an adult dragon.
Dragonhaven is in fact a rather self conscious and allegorical fantasy. The story is narrated by Jake, a young man whose father is a scientist at the Makepeace Institute. Jake is politically and emotionally aligned with Makepeace's mission. One of the reasons for studying dragons is that no one knows whether or not Dragons are intelligent. No reader expecting Jake to mindmerge with a baby dragon, discover that they are highly intelligent, learn their language, and swing the political pendulum back towards center with his discovery, will be disappointed.
    Mckinley seeks to overcome the predictability, and familiarity of the plot by exploring dragon human communication at great length. Yet for all its tried and true ingredients, mind merged friendships with dragons, saving the day by discovering dragon intelligence, and convincing the world that there are whos down in whoville, a group of kids who break ground that their highly educated adult counterparts have failed to break, a love story forged amidst adventure, a new batch of dragon babies, and the realization that "us humans have sure messed up a lot of stuff but we haven't quite finished the job so maybe we can unmess a little. Maybe with some help from dragons," Dragonhaven never quite catches fire. Jake feels a bit too consciously constructed as a narrator, and the story lacks the conviction and wonder which would have transcended its predictability. It will do fairly well, just on the strength of its dragonness and Mckinley's established name, but I don't think kids will fall in love with it.