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Dragonfell by Sarah Prineas is a delightful standalone middle grade fantasy that brings together a bunch of different dragon fantasy threads into this page-turner. As there's so much going on, let me apologize in advance for what's sure to become a rambling post, rather than a well organized review.
The book opens with Rafi Bywater outside of the old dragon hoard. The dragon of Dragonfell used to blue flowered teacups until it disappeared. Later in the book we're introduced to hoarders of watches, sea glass, knitted things, and so forth.
When I was a child, dragons only hoarded gold, with the quintessential dragon being Smaug from The Hobbit. In recent years, though, an artist who posts on Tumblr, created a series of "unusual dragon hoards" and Dragonfell's dragons are cut from similar cloth.
Rafi, though, is facing two problems. The first is that his home village doesn't trust him. He's dragon-touched and they are afraid the fires started in town are his fault. The second threat to the village is a man named Filtch who has come in his steam vehicle to take Rafi's spark.
A dragon's spark isn't a new concept either. Again going back to my childhood, I recall Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson (1979). It was an encyclopedia of dragons and the thing that made dragons fly was their fire, which was ignited by their spark (think flint in the mouth and noxious gases). Prineas's spark is a little more magical than that, but the terminology harkens to Dickinson's book.
Dickinson's book was also made into an animated movie. It was combined with the plot from The Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickson (1976). If you know the plot of the book (or the series as a whole), then you'll see where Dragonfell is going.
Filtch, though, might as well be Dr. Terminus (Pete's Dragon (1977)), reimagined into a nefarious business mogul. Given his fascination with dragon parts, we can just imagine him singing "Every Little Piece."
For Rafi to learn how to save his village and to save the dragons, he embarks on a quest, or dare I say, a road trip? He quickly teams up with "Mad Maud" and they head further down the road to learn what they can do to save the dragons.
Rafi and Maud's trip puts this fantasy novel onto the road narrative spectrum. Rafi and Maud are another example of the scarecrow and minotaur duality of traveler (99). Rafi is the scarecrow for his desire to save his town. Maud is the minotaur for her ties to the big city and the threat it poses to the town and the dragons.
Their destination might seem to be the city — and they do certainly go there — but the final goal is home (66). It's to make Rafi's home safe again. It's to help the displaced dragons return to their homes safely.
Finally there is the route, and that is offroad (66). Yes, they do often take the roads between towns, but the roads are also patrolled by Filtch's people. They stay ahead of him by going offroad whenever they can. And ultimately, the way home is via the air, the most offroad one can possibly go.
All together, the road narrative spectrum aspect of this novel is a scarecrow and minotaur teaming up to save home via an offroad route.
Although this book is only 260 pages, it's a well realized world with a steampunk technology, placing this dragon fantasy in a late Victorian era but in a rural place where big cities are still rare. Modern times are coming but maybe Rafi and Maud can find a compromise to keep the dragons part of this future.