Book Review: Dragonwatch, by Brandon Mull.


Oh my goodness, you guys. Dragonwatch came out two weeks ago, and all I have to say is, “AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!”

Squee!

…okay, that’s not all I have to say. I’ve actually been dying to write this blog post for a while, but I had to wait until I finished the first draft of my NaNoWriMo novel (woohoo!). Now that’s done, and I can blog about this awesome book without guilt.

Brandon Mull is one of my author inspirations. He writes clever, hilarious, squeaky-clean middle grade fantasy, which is basically everything I love. Also, Fablehaven reminds me of my sister, since I first discovered the series back in high school when I started reading it over her shoulder on a family road trip. That might have been the trip where I decided to be “responsible,” and only brought The Grapes of Wrath for reading material (and if you’ve read my 7 Books I Wish I’d Skipped post, you’ll know how well that turned out). Luckily, my sister is a saint and let me read her books when she was done with them. To this day, the Fablehaven series is one of my favorites, and when I heard Brandon Mull was going to write a five-book sequel series, I was out-of-my-mind excited.

***WARNING!*** The rest of this post is chock full of Fablehaven and Dragonwatch spoilers.

The basic premise of the book is that 15-year-old Kendra Sorenson and her 13-year-old Seth are called out of world-saving retirement to help avert another magical catastrophe. You see, the dragons have gotten too big for their britches and decided they’re tired of living in human-governed sanctuaries like most magical creatures. Celebrant, the dragon king and co-caretaker of the dragon sanctuary Wyrmroost, is taking matters into his own hands and attacking Wyrmroost headquarters. The most brilliant magical minds decide that the best way to counter his attacks is to make Kendra and Seth the human caretakers of the sanctuary.

How could this possibly be a good plan, you ask? Because dragons radiate an aura of overwhelming terror and paralysis that can incapacitate most humans. And thanks to the quirky high jinks of the original Fablehaven series, Kendra and Seth can stand in the presence of dragons and carry on a normal conversation as long as they’re holding hands. Awww.

The Good

I really, really liked this book. It was a solid continuation of the original series, filled with the crazy antics and lulz I’ve come to expect from Fablehaven. It was nice to revisit some familiar characters, and some of the new ones show some promise. Foremost among these is—I kid you not—a horse that reads Jane Austen and becomes Kendra’s horse buddy. This horse is, without a doubt, the best character in the book, and Kendra clearly agrees with me:

Today she not only had full permission to be at Wyrmroost—she was a caretaker! And she was being guided to a friendly destination along a secure route by a careful expert who knew the sanctuary well.

While riding a horse that appreciated Jane Austen.

Sometimes life was good.

Also, Seth’s horse buddy prefers Green Eggs and Ham. Can we talk about how perfect that is? It’s little things like this that make Brandon Mull’s characters so lovable.

Next up on the awesome stuff list: Kendra’s unicorn date to the Fairy Realm. Since the original series ended with Kendra in a not-quite-relationship with Bracken the mystical unicorn prince, I’ve been excited to see how this relationship unfolds. True, Bracken is a bit too Mary Sue for my liking, but he’s clearly good for Kendra, and it was nice to see them interacting again. I was a bit disappointed when I found out Dragonwatch takes place only a few months after the events of Keys to the Demon Prison, because that means Kendra’s still 15, and there won’t be any good unicorn smooching for at least a few books. But hey, I can’t fault Brandon Mull for wanting to keep his books firmly in middle grade territory. It’s not like I’m his target audience.

Speaking of Kendra, I cracked up when she started drooling over Garreth, the prince of the Fair Folk. After five books of watching her fill the “responsible big sister” role, it was refreshing to see her acting like a normal teenage girl. What’s even more hilarious is that Bracken is totally on to her. Here’s an excerpt from a telepathic conversation between Bracken and Kendra:

We’re with the Fair Folk. As the new caretakers, we had to pay them a visit.

Not bad looking, are they? Bracken commented knowingly.

Kendra felt her cheeks grow warm. Why was she suddenly feeling guilty? She hadn’t done anything wrong. Could he sense her emotions from the other side of the world? Probably not. He was only supposed to sense what she deliberately sent to him. I guess so, she finally replied.

It would have been even better if Bracken had showed just a hint of jealousy. But I guess it’s not too late.

In general, Kendra and Seth showed some real character development. Without giving away the ending, I’ll just say two things: Seth did something incredibly stupid, as usual, but he actually put some thought into it and ended up saving the day; and Kendra grew a spine, gained some real competence, and made a useful contribution that had nothing to do with recharging a magical doohickey. Both kids took some real initiative in this book, instead of waiting around for the adults to tell them what to do.

The Not-So-Good

As much as I loved Dragonwatch, it did have its flaws.

First and foremost, Warren Burgess made no appearances in this book. Now, if I’ve talked to you about Fablehaven at all (i.e. if you’re my sister or Tom), you’ll know that I think Warren is the best character in the entire series. Warren is what makes Fablehaven what it is. He’s this annoyingly-positive dork who has tons of experience and skills, and yet almost always manages to injure himself in a way that renders him completely useless: he’s been turned into a mute, catatonic albino; stabbed by a minotaur; mauled by a giant, flying demon cat; gored by a vicious flying deer; clawed by a harpy; and I’m sure I’m missing something else. But every time, he gets back up and keeps trying, because that’s the kind of bro he is. Without Warren, everyone would just be wandering around looking somber, because none of the other adults in the series have a sense of humor. He deserves better than to be stuck with a treacherous, vampire-chick girlfriend and mentioned only three times in Dragonwatch. I mean, come on—there’s so much excellent injury potential!

When Tom hinted that I shouldn’t get my hopes up about Warren being in the book, I almost put it down right then. I didn’t, obviously, and I’m glad I didn’t, but this serious, misguided omission is almost enough to knock a whole star off my Goodreads rating.

Next, there were some minor inconsistencies that made me a little grumpy. I hate it when authors are inconsistent. I know there’s a lot of information to keep straight in a series like this, but it might be useful to browse a fan-made wiki site once in a while.

  • At the end of Keys to the Demon Prison, the Fairy Queen promises to give the team’s creepy wooden puppet, Mendigo, a spark of free will so it can be a more useful servant. In Dragonwatch, Mendigo is still a witless automaton. Now, the Fairy Queen is a busy woman, but what about all that eternal gratitude for saving her husband, killing the demon king, preventing the end of the world, etc. etc.?
  • While Kendra is on her mystical unicorn date, they run into one of the astrids. Kendra’s brilliant response: “You look familiar.” Um, I should hope so, Kendra. There are only 90 of them left in the Fairy Queen’s service, and you smooched every single one of them. Plus, I’m pretty sure this one was in charge of guarding your brother. Do you really think acting dumb is going to impress your unicorn boyfriend, after all you’ve been through together?
  • Grandma and Grandpa Larsen faked their own deaths shortly before the Fablehaven series began, and it was very convincing. The whole family went the the funeral, and buried what was essentially a pair of Grandma and Grandpa clones. The whole story and process would only make sense to someone who understood all the magical hoo-hah they were involved with. So why are they suddenly inviting their other grandchildren to stay with them? They don’t know anything about magic. Their parents don’t know anything. How did they explain the fact that–surprise!—they’re both actually alive and have just been hiding from everyone for a year?

But the thing that really made me raise my eyebrows about this book was the whole plan to make Kendra and Seth caretakers in the first place. There are just so many flaws in this plan.

First of all, the way everyone constantly keeps Seth’s and Kendra’s parents in the dark is extremely troubling. Throughout the original series, it made a little more sense, because their ignorance of magical creatures was actually protecting them. Now that they’re in on the big magical hoo-hah secret, they ought to have a say in their children’s crazy, suicidal plans. But no—they’re conveniently off on vacation, so the kids’ supposedly responsible relatives tell the parents a bogus story, downplaying the insanely dangerous situation. And the parents supposedly just go along with it.

This brings up another point: do the kids’ parents like their kids at all? They certainly don’t seem concerned about dumping Kendra and Seth on their grandparents whenever they can. Family cruise? Go stay with your grandparents. Grandpa broke his arm and wants some help? Just be back in time for school to start. Kendra’s dead? Run along, Seth. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that they don’t bat an eye when their teenagers are summoned to help with some mysterious “emergency situation.”

Also: weren’t the parents supposed to be homeschooling the kids at Fablehaven? How’s that going to work if they’ve disappeared to Wyrmroost for at least a year? Oh well! Who needs college when you’ve got fairy powers?

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the insanity of the plan itself. Kendra and Seth are young teenagers—very resourceful teenagers, but still teenagers. Kendra is a wimp, and Seth has a history of nearly destroying magical preserves through his utter lack of common sense. And let’s not forget: last time the kids were at Wyrmroost, they looted the forbidden dragon temple and killed a dragon in her lair without provocation. This ought to earn both kids an automatic death sentence, but the dragons seem to have conveniently forgotten all about it. Still, they have forfeited much of the natural protections afforded to innocent guests at the sanctuary. Grandma and Grandpa Sorenson come along to help them out, but history has proven they’re no match for Seth’s antics. Warren and their other friends are nowhere to be found, and Bracken is off fighting Unicorn McEdgebro in a different sanctuary. These poor, incompetent children have no support except the sketchy, distrustful assistants at Wyrmroost. It’s almost as if the geniuses in charge of this plan are intentionally setting the kids up for failure. Hmmm…

The wizard Agad’s reasoning for recruiting the kids is that they’re the dragon tamers he trusts the most. This is simply not true. It’s stated in Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary that Mara and Trask both show potential as dragon tamers. They might not have the innate talent of the Kendra-and-Seth team, but what they lack in dragon-conversing talent, they more than make up in overall life skills. They both trespassed at the dragon temple, but they didn’t actually kill any dragons, which gives them some advantage.

Conclusion

That “Not-So-Good” section was kind of rant-y, and I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I gave Dragonwatch four stars. There were definitely some eyebrow-raising bits, but overall, I really enjoyed this book. The ending was just suspenseful enough to keep me excited for the next installment, which supposedly comes out next year. I’ll be looking forward to finding out where the series goes.

Just…bring back Warren, okay, Brandon? He’s overdue to be impaled by something ridiculous.

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