I don’t know how or where I found this book first. Needing something to pad an Amazon order to get the free shipping, I went down my wish list and found it there. A preview made me suspect that I would adore the writing style—descriptive, poetic, an older style, really—and adore the protagonist—Ansel, a young boy made mute by the shock of the death of his mother and apprenticed by an abusive father to a would-be dragon-slayer. The book was not unpredictable, and anyone looking for surprises should probably look elsewhere, but there’s such a thing as a niche book, and this one fit very comfortably into my niche. It had everything I could wish for: a dragon, a gentle boy who proves a powerful protagonist, children who know better than adults, vocabulary that I have to look up and from which I can learn, corrupt religious officials, strong women….
The older style—one I lean towards myself—suited the book well, I thought, as a story set in a more realistically medieval world than most medieval fantasies. The world is old Germanic, peppered with the characters and superstitions and religious reliance common to medieval times but often overlooked in more fantastical medieval settings. It was more realistic for its language and its details—despite the dragon.
That realism carried forward to a dragon that was less fantastic and more animalistic, a strange beast, maybe last of its kind, but with the same survivalist instincts and behaviors as any other creature.
This was a book about combating stereotypes and not judging a person or creature by its appearance.
The cast was predominately male but the women prove as resourceful and clever as any man.
The two child protagonists—Else and Ansel—take turns saving one another with almost equal give and take. I was pleased that there was no romantic element in this story, a trap that Reeve could easily have fallen into with two opposite sex protagonists of roughly the same age and Else already having been a sacrificial virgin in need of saving and Ansel coming to her rescue, placing them very firmly in the fairy tale roles of damsel in distress and white knight. It even seems possible that Else’s mother might avoid falling in love with the comically blusterous Brock, despite the book’s conclusion.
Reeve did something interesting here too by denying speech to one of his protagonists. The book is told from a third person limited perspective with Ansel as our primary POV character. This of course gives Reeve a chance to have Ansel express himself to the reader but he does have difficulty communicating with the other characters—and both Brock and Else in some ways take advantage of his silence to give more room to their own voices. I think Else in particular benefits from Ansel’s silence, having a rare opportunity to speak her mind without interruption or judgment. Now of course I may be predisposed to be sympathetic towards Else and to pick up on this attitude of Else’s besides, but I am impressed that Reeve was so well able to capture that feeling of relief and freedom in her unbridled expression.
I started this book for Ansel. I stayed for him and for Else.
And the prose and the vocabulary.
Reeve, Philip. No Such Thing as Dragons. New York: Scholastic, 2010. First published 2009.
This review is not endorsed by Philip Reeve or Scholastic Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.