Tag Archives: Cressida Cowell

Book Review: Selfishness Mars The Wizard of Once

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, samples, trailer, and a drawing tutorial with the author.

Spoilers are in white.  Highlight to read.

I read nine of the twelve novels in Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series between 2011 and 2015. Then I sort of stalled. I had hoped that this, the first book in her newest series, might help to springboard me through those last three novels by reminding me of all that I had originally so loved. Comparison between the two series is for me truly unavoidable because it is in fact what I was seeking.

And I don’t think that this series was able to accomplish what I’d hoped that it would.

I stalled on this book too. I began reading it on a plane in October 2018. I finished it in June 2019.

This very British story is set in a Britain before it was Britain, during a fantastical conflict between magical Wizards and iron-wielding, fortification-building Warriors; even setting aside the magic of the Wizards, I’m finding no exact historical matches for these cultures to set the story at any historical point (the Bronze Age Beaker culture vs the Iron Age, hill fort-building, Celtic Britons maybe being the nearest since the Wizards can’t bear iron, and the Warriors definitely have iron).  This seems more to me more like a mythic version of Britain, Arthur’s Britain maybe before even he was born (though Arthur’s Britain has a more concrete place and time than this) than a representation of the actual Britain.

As in How to Train Your Dragon, the narrative here is peppered with some fantastic lines, particularly oaths that build her world such as “by ivy and mistletoe and green things with long, hairy whiskers” (183) and some very choice descriptions like “a splintering scream like the death agony of five hundred foxes” (60)—I wish I had marked them as I read along. The text too is littered with allusions to British and Norse myths and British literary canon. Finding those allusions was a fun game. But I don’t think the prose was enough to carry me through what I found most difficult about this novel:

I just don’t like Xar. He’s not a very likable hero. He is arrogant. He puts his followers in danger. He is willing to break the rules to achieve his goals, and his goals are selfish. It takes the imminent death of a friend (follower? pet?) before Xar feels any responsibility or regret or humility. He then does try—he really tries—to save his friend, and that is admirable. But even that quest is not wholly unselfish for in achieving it, Xar can save himself as well.

Xar and Hiccup are near enough one another in circumstance if not in personality that the comparison is fairly unavoidable. Both’s fathers are the leaders of their peoples. Both boys lack the characteristics that are valued in their societies. Xar has a lot more growing to do before he becomes as likable as Hiccup was in the first book, let alone in the later books when Hiccup is becoming more and more the King of the Wilderwest who will unite the Vikings. Hiccup pushes back against his society’s standards when they are wrong (he promises to free the slaves, promises to free the dragons, speaks to dragons in their own language instead of shouting at them in the Vikings’). Xar seeks to conform even knowing that what he does endangers others as well as himself.  [SPOILERS] Xar leads his father to believe that Wizard society needs a place for the magic-less but without ever setting out to do so, then he lies again to his father and his people and he uses his accidentally retained Dark magic without guilt. His reward is not being accepted into the society as he is but rather obtaining that which he no longer needs to be accepted—and perhaps at great personal cost. [END]

Wish is a bit more likable. She is a Warrior who does not live up to the expectations of her mother, Queen Sycorax. She should be fierce and orderly and tidy but is instead disheveled with an odd eye over which she wears a patch and has a big heart, even keeping a secret pet of which her mother definitely wouldn’t approve. Wish wants to make her mother proud but always comes up short. She can be brash.  [SPOILERS] She does show her mother in the end that she can be fierce by standing up to her mother. [END]

Bodkin I liked best, but he is the sidekick and isn’t given the page-time that I would have liked him to have. He is nervous, anxious, cautious, fainthearted. He is trying to protect his charge as an Assistant Bodyguard. He wants to make his family proud too.

***

Cowell, Cressida. The Wizards of Once, Book 1. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2018. First published 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: How To Write Books in a Series–Finally: How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword

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Spoilers.

Bek has proved right, and I owe her a public profession of her correctness. We got together in April, and started somehow or another, in talking about everything and nothing, talking about Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series. I told her I’d sort of fallen out of love and why, and she demanded to know where in the series I’d left off, then proceeded to tell me that the next book—the ninth book, How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword—is where Cowell finally brings it all together, mollifying my complaint that the books that have trying to become book in a series have remained a book series instead.

The witch Excellinor returns in How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword with another prophecy about the next king of the Wilderwest. In book 8, the next king was concluded to be either Hiccup or his nemesis, Alvin the Treacherous, Excellinor’s son. Now Excellinor reveals that the king is going to be known by ten objects, eight of which Hiccup already carries with him or has back home on Berk. These objects Hiccup has been collecting since the first book, one of them being a toothless dragon.

I am reminded again of the parallels that could be drawn between this series and J. K. Rowling’s series for a slightly older audience, Harry Potter. Harry late in the series is told that his quest involves collecting six items—Horcruxes—the first of which he encounters by chance in the second book. Hiccup’s books being so much smaller than Harry’s and Hiccup having more objects besides to collect, it is unsurprisingly really that it has taken Hiccup as long as it has to find the objects—though one could yet question why he needs all of these things—or really any of them (other than to appease a prophecy). Moreover J. K. Rowling gives us a whole 750-page book devoted to the organized and intentional search for Horcruxes. Harry searches for Horcruxes in order to be able to destroy a great Evil and the search can be seen only as fairly selfless. A search conducted by Hiccup for ten objects that would cinch him a powerful title and earthly authority could be misconstrued as selfish—even as the stated goals of his kingship (free the dragons, free the slaves) are fairly selfless—making an intentional and willful search for the King’s Lost Things potentially harmful to Hiccup’s image as selfless hero. So while I did get a bit tired of the episodic quests of earlier books, I see now why it was important for the journey to this ninth book to be so drawn out, why Hiccup’s retrieval of the eight objects had to seem so unconnected to a larger goal.

The Slavemark too that Hiccup has kept hidden since book 7 returns to plague our hero and cause the trouble that we were promised that it would, but being revealed when it is, it is even more troublesome for Hiccup, who seemed prior to its revelation to have finally risen above all the tribes’ prejudice and ridicule and seemed to have won out over his nemesis and the over his enemy, the dragon Furious, who has vowed to destroy all humankind.

So here we have, I think, the beginning of the series reading like books in a series instead of a book series—finally. I hope for good things henceforth.

I tore through How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword in just a few days. By the 75th page if not before I was hooked and deeply entrenched in the suspense of the plot.

Cowell continues to experiment with illustration in this book, using a number of styles. Primarily she uses the 19th and early 20th century captioned illustration, which either captures a singular moment with a repeated line of the text or which is a portrait of a particular character or place. A few of the captions of the illustrations enhance rather than repeat the text, adding lines that could be taken as optional, but I chose to believe were instead text themselves, meant to be read in conjunction with the normally formatted text. She again uses just a touch of mixed media, using a photograph of fire in several instances as dragonfire. I actually feel as if this mixed media was less successful than the mixed media she experimented with in book 8, partially because the photograph was more integrated here with the drawing and partially because the infernos that the photograph was meant to represent I think could have been given more oomph with an illustration instead of a photograph of a narrow tongue of flame. That being said, I see what Cowell was trying to do with the photograph. The photograph looks to be more concentrated fire drawn by Cowell because her drawing style is sketchish and her lines loose, where the photograph is layered as reality.

****

Cowell, Cressida. How to Train Your Dragon, Book 9: How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword. New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2013.  First published 2011.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: How to Break a Dragon’s Heart Still Waffles Between Book Series and Books in a Series

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Spoilers!

The eighth book in Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series, How to Break a Dragon’s Heart deals with heartache: betrayal and unrequited romance. I’ve said before that the plots of these books seem to be becoming larger, more epic. This book’s plot gets larger still. A witch locked long in a tree tells Hiccup that he was never destined to be born, that his parents were never meant to marry. But this Hiccup in destiny has created in Hiccup a second possible heir and hero of a prophecy, the other possible hero being Alvin the Treacherous, Hiccup’s ever-returning-from-seemingly-inescapable-peril arch-nemesis and (we learn in this tale) a distant relation of Hiccup’s. Hiccup or Alvin is destined to be King of all of the Archipelago, a role that previous books have promised us that Hiccup will attain.

As much as I appreciate Hiccup’s reflective chapters as endings to each of these books for the emotional punch that Cowell tends to use them to deliver and for the poetry of their prose and sentiments, they do rather detract from the mystery and suspense. I wonder how far Cowell expected to write in Hiccup’s timeline, whether she ever dreamed she’d be allowed to tell this much of the arc, and whether she regrets now the decision to reveal early his destiny.

Could the attainment of his crown or of the peace that his reign will bring according to the older Hiccup be the goal that finally makes this series more of books in a series and less a book series? So far, the series has lacked a continuous problem. In books in a series, the Ring has to get to Mordor and Sauron must be defeated—or Harry has to graduate and Voldemort must be defeated—or even Clary and Jace have to be together. Right now there is no problem that, when solved, we know will mark the end of Cowell’s series. Hiccup’s adventures have been episodic rather than serial. Each completed quest has meant the attainment of some goal, but they have brought Hiccup, cumulatively, no further towards one goal more important than all the others.

Honestly, I’m starting to get a bit tired of Hiccup’s adventures, and I think a goal would go a long way towards providing me with the motivation to finish this series, which is slated to be a full twelve books long. Not because book series are in any way necessary lesser than books in a series. There has not been an episodic book series that I’ve taken to in quite some time. I think I personally prefer to see books in a series with good character growth and a complex plot needing more than one book to be properly told. If How to Train Your Dragon remains episodic, it will not make it lesser writing. I want to make that clear. I write with a clear preference towards the epic. I think for this book series, particularly, though, the waffling on the threshold of epic has become somewhat tiresome. I want soon to know on which side of the door I can firmly stand.

Beyond this plot of Alvin and Hiccup warring over the throne, Furious the dragon has sworn to bring an army of dragons against the humans, destroying them all lest the humans destroy each dragon. Now, eight books in, we get to the war of Dreamworks’ film adaptation (I really believed DreamWorks had invented a war between dragons and Vikings).

I do want to take a moment to praise the page layout for the chapters where POV characters were locked in hollow tree dungeons. That’s a cool use of mixed media.

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***1/2

Cowell, Cressida. How to Train Your Dragon, Book 8: How to Break a Dragon’s Heart. New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2009.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: A More Pensive Adventure and a Loftier Ambition for Hiccup

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Click to visit the series' site for links to order, summary, and sample of the 1st chapter.

Spoilers ahoy!

In How to Ride a Dragon’s Storm, the seventh book of Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series, after Hiccup’s quick thinking and smooth tongue creates a tenuous truce between the Murderous Tribe and the already tenuously allied Bog-Burglars and Hairy Hooligans (A Hero’s Guide to Deadly Dragons), Madguts the Murderous invites the three tribes to compete in a Friendly Swimming Race. The point of a Proper Viking Swimming Race is to be the last back, having survived the frigid waters, the Shark Worms, and the trickery of other Vikings, and having had the strength to do so while fully clothed and heavily armored. The last back has to promise that he “did not seek aid by Float or Boat” (240). Caught in the outgoing tide, Hiccup, Fishlegs, and Camicazi are plucked from the water by Raptortongues and brought to the boat of Norbert the Nutjob (How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse), from whom I forgot that Hiccup stole a ticking-thing that is much more than clock or alarm clock (and which gives me some insight into the twelve hands of a Wizarding clock and a strong desire for an analog watch that is also a compass because that ought to be easy to create—ha! and they do exist!). Hiccup manages to evade an immediate death for himself and his friends and buys their safe passage on Norbert’s ship, but along with the three Vikings, Norbert has a cargo of slaves convinced that all Vikings are “vermin, wicked and brutish enslavers” deserving death (98).  To save himself from them, Hiccup makes a bargain with the slaves, promising to free them, but in return, the slaves brand Hiccup indelibly as a slave so that he cannot forget his promise. This mark means instant banishment for any Viking regardless of the circumstances in which it’s acquired, and so Hiccup will have to keep it hidden from now on, but as the elder Hiccup says in the Dumbledore-esque reflection that closes the memoir, “maybe all Kings should bear the Slavemark, to remind them that they should be slaves to their people, rather than the other way around” (250). This, Hiccup says, is the adventure on which he decides that he not only wants to be Chief but King to be able to create a new world with justice, without fear, and without slavery—and I’m going to enjoy watching his journey into the King that drives out all of the frightful things of his world (even if that means the retreat of dragons). That reflection at the end is supremely uplifting, washing away the memories of the book’s darkness and the dangers of the Great West Ocean and the deaths (though I’m not convinced that Norbert will stay any more dead than Alvin has had the tendency to do, though it might take him some time to return to plague Hiccup and the Archipelago). Hiccup, ever forward thinking and never greedy, begins his new world at the end of the book’s plot by breaking an age-old cycle of violence.

As ever, this How to Train Your Dragon book is fraught with adventure, excitement, danger, and proof that brains and heart can make one just as heroic as brawn and brutality and trickery if not more so.  I was more caught up in the adventure and the lessons learned by Hiccup than I was in stitches from Cowell’s wittiness.  While I was attracted at first by her humor as much as her hero, I think the series is becoming more serious.  I’m not displeased.  I’ve always been fonder of books in a series (books about a character or characters between which and through which time passes and the characters mature and grow) than a book series (a series without progressive character growth from one book to the next, something like The Boxcar Children written under the pen name Gertrude Chandler Warner or The Pony Pals written under the pen name Jeanne Betancourt).  Cowell has struggled somewhat with the books in a series concept, often dropping characters (where is my lame Windwalker since book 5?) or objects (the ticking-thing hasn’t been mentioned since book 4.  I notice that the bracelet from book 5 is back, though, after missing from the illustrations in book 6) as she has found them unnecessary.  I’m really hoping to see her improve, but I’m willing to enjoy the books despite that inadequacy.

****

Cowell, Cressida.  How to Train Your Dragon, Book 7: How to Ride a Dragon’s Storm.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2011.  First published in the UK 2008.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: A New Leaf for Hiccup in A Hero’s Guide to Deadly Dragons?

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Click to visit the series' page for links to order, summary, and excerpt.

There be some spoilers ahead.

And now we have arrived at the sixth in Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series, A Hero’s Guide to Deadly Dragons. I had expected, from the title, for this book to be less adventure and more encyclopedia, so I was pleasantly surprised to find our heroes engaging again in acts of burglary and thievery (though a small bit of encyclopedic knowledge is included in the back). In this Toothless in a common tantrum burns the book that Gobber the Belch has stolen from the Hairy Scary Librarian’s library.  This book becomes the subject of a bet between Hiccup’s father, Chief Stoick the Vast, and Camicazi’s mother, Big-Boobied Bertha.  The competition between the two parents and the two tribes is fierce.  Hiccup does not want his father embarrassed and so decides to hide his dragon’s naughtiness by going on a quest to steal a book himself from the Hairy Scary Librarian. With his friends Camicazi and Fishlegs, Hiccup sets off for the Meathead Public Library (which is not so public). Books are banned in Viking society, and the Hairy Scary Librarian guards all of that knowledge and believes it all to be his.  As always, Hiccup’s un-Viking noodling saves the day, albeit in an unusual way for the series. His schemes in this book are much less elaborate than in previous tales, consisting more of applying knowledge and thinking on the spot, and have far more to do with avoiding a fight than escaping or winning one.

This book introduces us to new villains, the Murderous Tribe and their leader, Madguts the Murderous, and more personally to the Meathead Hairy Scary Librarian, mentioned before and previously a referee at The Thing (How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale). Previous villains with the possible exception of Norbert the Nutjob (How To Cheat a Dragon’s Curse) have been aggressors filled with greed for what is not theirs. In this (and How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse), Hiccup and his friends are thieves, and the villains might be seen as reacting to wrongs inflicted rather than attacking without provocation.  Madguts and his tribe, from whom Camacazi’s mother has stolen, do not meet Hiccup and company till the very end of the book, and when they do, Madgut’s threats are diverted by Hiccup’s words alone rather than by any weaponry, and Madguts in fact becomes the deus ex machina that helps Hiccup defeat the Hairy Scary Librarian.  The Hairy Scary Librarian, from whom Hiccup and his friends come to steal a book, is squashed by a dragon and then dragged off to the Uglithug Slavelands by Madguts.

I’ll be interested to see if these books have marked the turn of Hiccup towards more Viking-like heroics (raiding). It is interesting to see him not wronged but wronging others.  I should be probably a bit disturbed by this turn, but the brutality and cruelty attached to the very names of those he wrongs still makes him seem more a traditional Jack (and the Beanstalk) or maybe more Odysseus than a criminal.  Always, Hiccup has good reasons for stealing (better reasons in fact, I would argue, than does Jack).  From Norbert, he needed the potato to save his friend. From the Hairy Scary Librarian, he wanted to steal to protect Toothless.  Moreover, Hiccup liberates the books and their knowledge from the Hairy Scary Librarian, which especially while reading a book, is difficult to fault.  Hiccup only borrows the dragon that Big-Boobied Bertha has stolen from Madguts then defends Bertha from being punished for her crime, which is perhaps not so morally clear, but Bertha is his friend’s mother.

The more I look at these past three books (How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale, and A Hero’s Guide to Deadly Dragons), the more I think that swapping books four and five would have led to a better series flow, a more cohesive character building.  The narrative thread seems to have been dropped just a tiny bit too by the exclusion in this book of the Windwalker from Dragon’s Tale, whom I had expected to start playing a larger role, but perhaps because of his similarity to Dreamworks’ Toothless I am giving him too much weight. Separately, I still enjoy all of these books.

***1/2

Cowell, Cressida.  How to Train Your Dragon, Book 6: A Hero’s Guide to Deadly Dragons.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2010.  First published 2007.

This review is not endorsed by Hachette Book Group, Little, Brown and Company, or Cressida Cowell.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: A Few More Morals and Misadventures From Berk

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The lesson of How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, the fourth book of Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series, is that fate can be altered and your own luck can be made by you—which is interestingly contrasted with the prophecies scattered throughout these plots and the patrilineal monarchy of the Viking tribe of which the book’s hero, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, is a part.  Hiccup will (unless something happens to him) become chief of the Hairy Hooligans.  If Hiccup does not survive to take up the chieftaincy, his cousin, Snotface Snotlout, will take his place. I’m interested to see if, as the series, progresses, Cowell plays with this newly introduced concept of creating luck and altering fate against the seemingly fixed destiny of her hero, whom the reader from the beginning knows will become a famous Viking hero, the series being written as a set of his memoirs, and the elder Hiccup telling “this story as if it happened to somebody else, because the boy [he] once was is so distant to [him] now, that he might as well be a stranger” (Prologue, How To Twist a Dragon’s Tale).

Probably the star here is the ludicrous ideas of a medieval culture that believed that the world was flat.  Hiccup seeks the vegetable-that-no-one-dares-name, a potato, a strange probably imaginary plant from the mythical land of America.  Yet, only a potato can counteract the deadly poison of the Venomous Vorpent, and Hiccup needs that cure badly.

The book does teach readers to stand up for, protect, and cling to friends, which ordinarily I would think to be a incontestably good lesson, but Hiccup clings to Fishlegs against his father’s command.  While children need to learn whom to befriend and whom they should not, and parents can misjudge children, parents often have a good sense about whether or not their children’s friends are positive or negative influences, and I’m not sure that teaching children to flout their parents’ judgment is ideal—however flawed Stoick the Vast’s judgments have proved in the past—and they have proved to be quite poor, and I would have Hiccup cling to Fishlegs, especially in lieu of his father’s suggestion that Hiccup befriend his bullying cousin, Snotlout.

****

Before I could finish a review of How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, I went ahead and listened to the audiobook, read by David Tennant, of the fifth book in the series, How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale, so now I can answer some of the questions that I was posing in the review of book 4.

As yet, Cowell has done little with book 4’s lesson about the opportunity to change fate, other than to remind that readers that it’s never too late to do something heroic.  I suppose the primary moral of this tale is best summed up by Stoick the Vast: “WE WILL NEVER SURRENDER!” (69).  The primary quest of How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale is one to stop a volcano from exploding and hatching a flock of rare and particularly vicious Exterminator Dragons.

How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale sees the return of Hiccup’s arch-enemy, Alvin the Treacherous, still not dead, and it introduces a very Harry Potter-like element to Hiccup’s and Alvin’s conflict (with Alvin having created his own worst enemy in Hiccup, and yes, I fear that concept was used by Rowling first).  We also learn more about Hiccup’s mother, a very shadowy woman, mentioned previously really only by name and as possessing an “extra-strong, heavy-duty bra” (How to Train Your Dragon 169).  She still does not make much of an appearance and seems to be a rather absent parent, being too busy questing to be at home with her family, but her back story and Stoick’s is delved into.

Cowell plays with the western fairy tale/hero story clichés, having riders on white and black dragons.

This is the first of her books where dragons are ridden.  Still no Night Furies, but Hiccup now has a lame Windwalker, too young yet to fly, but he will carry Hiccup along the ground.  Could this be the inspiration for the half-tailed Toothless of Dreamworks’?  Hiccup’s Windwalker is illustrated more darkly than other dragons, so I’m supposing that he is black.  The Windwalker as yet has no name.

The illustrations are particularly emotive.  I after listening to the audiobook, opened the book that I had and looked at the illustrations.

I especially enjoyed David Tennant singing with the many voices of the Vikings in this book.

****1/2

Cowell, Cressida.  How To Train Your Dragon, Book 4: How To Cheat a Dragon’s Curse.  2006.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2010.

Cowell, Cressida.  How To Train Your Dragon, Book  5: How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale.  2007.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2010.

Cowell, Cressida.  How to Train Your Dragon, Book 5: How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale.  Narr. David Tennant.  Hodder Children’s Audio: 2007.  Audio recording.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, David Tennant, Hodder Children’s Audio, or Little, Brown, and Company, part of Hachette Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Hiccup’s World Expands in How To Speak Dragonese

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Here there be some spoilers.

I began the third in Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series, How To Speak Dragonese, by listening to the audio recording read by David Tennant.  Halfway through that, I stumbled upon a hardcover copy of the book at my local used bookstore.  I couldn’t leave it there.  I began the book again, enjoying the visual and textural stimulation with which the audio recording could not provide me.  When I had caught up to myself, I passed myself, and I finished the print copy before finishing the audio copy (and have yet to finish the audio and may not).

Though I enjoy the voices with which Tennant reads these stories, they worked against Cowell in this tale, alerting me to one of the plot twists too early.  I was unable in rereading to tell if I’d have guessed the twist at the same point without Tennant’s voice acting.

Visually, I appreciate very much Cowell’s use of formatting as well as her illustrations.  Always, the Viking’s Norse has been distinguished from Dragonese by its font, but now these are distinguished by their fonts again from Latin, and the nanodragon Ziggerastica’s Dragonese distinguished from all of these by its smaller font size.

This time Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III has to battle Roman legionaries hoping to cause trouble among the local Viking tribes, particularly Hiccup’s Hairy Hooligans and the Bog-Burglars.  The Bog-Burglars are a tribe of female warriors led by Big-Boobied Bertha (yeah, you read that correctly).  It’s really nice to finally be introduced by Cowell to some female characters.  No Astrid, but now we have Camicazi, Big-Boobied Bertha’s daughter and heir to the Bog-Burglars.  Camicazi is a small girl and spunky (to say the least).  She considers herself a master escaper and unlike Hiccup and Fishlegs does not sit waiting for a rescue but acts to better her situation.  She convinces Hiccup and Fishlegs to help her with her first escape attempt, but Hiccup and Fishlegs give up after the first failure—and while this might be amounted to wisdom and common sense as Camicazi’s escape plans become more and more absurd and her punishments become more severe, culminating in several days in solitary confinement, the Vikings won’t escape the Romans by passively waiting, and these characters demonstrate a nice reversal of the too long stereotypically gendered passivity and action.

It is, however, eventually Hiccup’s wits and his ability to talk to dragons that save the trio and Toothless—and Camicazi’s wits and boldness when Hiccup’s getaway boat sinks.

This is definitely a tale that lauds “the little guy,” making it especially tailored to its middle grade readers.

I did not like this book as well as I liked the previous two, but I very much enjoyed Cowell’s representation of the Romans, which while twisted to fit her dragon-filled alternate history, really captures the nastier aspects of the Romans that I didn’t learn about till much later in my life.  In middle school, for example, no one told me about the Romans’ habit of making themselves vomit so that they could eat more.

This was perhaps also the most inward of the two books, partially because of the passivity of the protagonists previously mentioned and their confinement, but also because it deals more with Hiccup’s fears that his father might not think him a worthy heir (a theme from the cinematic adaptation How To Train Your Dragon) more than the others have done.

It should also be noted that this is probably the first of the books that really relies on its predecessor; here the books become books in a series and not a book series.

****

Cowell, Cressida.  How To Train Your Dragon, Book 3: How To Speak Dragonese.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2005.

Cowell, Cressida.  How to Train Your Dragon, Book 3: How to Speak Dragonese.  2005.  Narr. David Tennant.  Audio recording.  Hodder Children’s Audio: 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, David Tennant, Hodder Children’s Audio, or Little, Brown, and Company, part of Hachette Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Hiccup’s Adventures Continue in How to Be a Pirate

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I’ve been feeling ill these past few days and several weeks ago a friend had been listening to the How to Train Your Dragon series on audio and recommending them to me.  I remembered this recommendation one night when I didn’t want to watch anymore TV and didn’t feel as if I had the focus to want to read but wanted a story to distract me.  Having already read How to Train Your Dragon, the first in the series of “memoirs” by the Viking hero Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, I found an audiobook of the second in the series, How to Be a Pirate.  Cressida Cowell’s books are read by David Tennant in his natural Scottish accent.  Having David Tennant read to me a book filled with humor and adventure in voices such as my parents never managed was a true blessing while I was miserable.

A great fan of the film done by DreamWorks, in my mind the main characters are even more fleshy than those illustrations offered by Cowell in the prequel to this story—and Hiccup is a brunette rather than a redhead, though Toothless’ film incarnation and book illustration I am able to separate, remembering that when I am reading or listening to the book, Toothless is a green Common or Garden dragon about the size of small kitten.  I did not for these familiar characters mind the absence of Cowell’s illustrations necessitated by the audiobook format.  But for new characters—in particular Alvin the Poor-but-Honest-Farmer, who is the catalyst of the adventure—I was surprised to find myself missing the sketchy illustrations by Cowell (though when I found her illustration of the man, I preferred the image of Alvin that my mind had cooked up).

I worried that the series might be one of those the adventures of which became repetitive.  Two books in, I can’t fault the series for that.  This second book was different enough from the first to be just as interesting and just as funny—if not more so.  I think Tennant’s voice acting may have added to the humor of the book.  Certainly, he made the sarcasm in Hiccup’s tone more palpable.

This second book continues Hiccup’s challenge to be accepted as Hope and Heir to the Tribe of the Hairy Hooligans.  He combats bullies and Viking ideals, to which he does not conform.  Hiccup again leads the Hairy Hooligans, but not in the obvious ways that he does in How to Train Your Dragon.  There, Hiccup won the Hooligans’ admiration through action.  Here, he won my admiration through inaction.  He shows that he is not only clever and brave but wise, [SPOILER] foregoing glory and riches for to protect his people from a danger they cannot see and from a danger that they desire and covet. [END SPOILER]

This is still technically a boys’ book, even more devoid than the last of a female presence, the only female figures being a dragon or two, but even while I recognize Cowell’s intended audience, I still object that I am a woman and I enjoyed the book.  (Categorizing books into boys’ and girls’ requires pigeonholing and often involves adherence to a should-be-dead system of bias and prejudice whereby girls must become housewives and child-bearers and boys can be adventures and heroes.)

****

Cowell, Cressida.  How to Train Your Dragon, Book 2: How to Be a Pirate.  2004.  Narr. David Tennant.  Audio recording.  Hodder Children’s Audio: 2004.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, David Tennant, Hodder Children’s Audio, or the original print publisher, Little, Brown, and Company, part of Hachette Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: How To Train Your Dragon: Time to Un-Banish the Book for Lighthearted Fun and Important Lessons

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Berk.  “The only problem is the pests.”  Right?

In Cressida Cowell’s book How to Train Your Dragon, first in a series of “memoirs” by Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, dragons are not pests; they’re pets, cat-like creatures about the size of leopards with the same duties as hunting falcons.  Sorry, all.  No one’s riding Toothless.  The only thing remarkable about Toothless, a Common or Garden dragon (who knows where DreamWorks got the idea for a Night Fury), is his very, very small size (Terrible Terror-sized maybe).

Hiccup is still the sarcastic only son of Chief Stoick the Vast.  He is still an unlikely hero, who doesn’t look or act like a “proper” Viking should.  His best friend is the allergy-ridden Fishlegs, also not likely to be nominated most likely to succeed.  Snotlout is there, arrogant, but bullying and now Hiccup’s cousin with designs for the chieftainship.  He does not reconcile with Hiccup by the end of the book.  Hiccup would be left without a rival for the remainder of the series if he did.

Stoick and Hiccup’s relationship is still rocky because Stoick clings to the traditional Viking way, and Hiccup is “a talking fishbone,” but Gobber is no go-between, and the restoration of a loving father-son relationship takes back-seat to Hiccup’s unlikely heroism in the book’s plot.

How to Train Your Dragon is a boys’ book through and through.  You will find no Astrid or Ruffnut.  Sad, I know, but I’m a girl, and I still enjoyed it.

For fans of the movie, reading through the book and matching the bits of scrap fabric from which DreamWorks’ quilt is made is a fun challenge.  Many of the pieces are there, but they aren’t always what they seem.  It’s a brilliant adaptation in that way.  Moviemakers might be interested in the book for the same challenge.

Independently of the movie or beside it, the book is enjoyable.  It’s lighthearted in the main, lighter than the film, illustrated with childish drawings (some are better than others) and splattered with… ink? blood?  It’s humorous, though relies more on hyperbole, the unexpected, undergarments, and bodily functions than the sarcasm of the film.

The film retained the books’ main message: that you needn’t be the strongest or loudest or an adult to win friends and fight enemies, that cleverness and diplomacy and understanding can conquer monsters, that what seems heartless (dragons and people) may be only misunderstood.

I have my doubts about Cowell’s writing style.  It did not seem entirely cohesive.  Sometimes it seemed to be Hiccup’s first person voice, sometimes a close third, and sometimes an omniscient third, but I think that most readers may not even notice in the exciting plot, jokes, scattered drawings, plentiful capitals, and inkblots.

I appreciate the nods to Viking culture, though I do think that her representation is probably highly stereotyped.  Still, the presence of Thor, seers, Hiberno-Saxon designs, and Beowulf all add to the setting.

This is definitely a book to recommend to the boy who feels like he doesn’t fit in, the boy outside of the popular crowd, the boy who likes adventure, the boy of average boy humor, maybe even the boy who might be a reluctant reader (cinematic adaptation ought to help that, right?).

And yeah, the rest of us can enjoy it too.

****

Cowell, Cressida.  How To Train Your Dragon.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2003.

This review is not endorsed by Hachette Book Group, Little, Brown and Company, or Cressida Cowell.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.