Review: Dragon of the Lost Sea

“But to my annoyance, he did not seem in the least bit frightened. In fact, I seemed to amuse him – just as an elderly, eccentric aunt might have.” p110

Dragon of the Lost Sea by Laurence Yep.
Charlotte Zolotow, HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, my edition 1988, originally published 1982.
MG fantasy, 214 pages.
Lexile: 830L .
AR Level: 5.8 (worth 6.0) .
NOTE: First of a quartet, see review for the relationship this has with other Yep books.

An unremarkable human boy with a generous spirit and a magical dragon princess team up on a quest for revenge and restoration that doesn’t go how either of them expect.

Dragon of the Lost Sea is the first volume in Laurence Yep’s classic middle grade fantasy quartet.

This was one of those Yep books that always gave me a pause since his books with Dragon in the title could be either fantasy or historical fiction. Thankfully, this one has a dragon front and center on the cover, so it’s pretty clear that it’s a fantasy novel – which is probably also why I’d never read it before, since most Yep books I read were in order to catalog them properly.

Yep opens with the main viewpoint character as an elderly, impoverished woman traveling a beaten, broken down land, who smells something strange in a small village. It’s pretty clear within a few chapters that this is going to be high fantasy, and I am excited. We meet the main character Thorn, about whom several things will seem very obvious to experienced or adult readers and probably less so to the intended middle grade audience.

When Thorn and Shimmer meet, I loved their banter but I was also perplexed. Because Yep has another set of dragon books, the A Dragon’s Guide trilogy written with his wife Joanne Ryder. I read the first one, but haven’t yet reviewed it for this blog because it isn’t especially diverse. But the human/dragon banter in that book is remarkably similar to this one.

After finishing this book, I feel confident that the dragon is the same in both, although I plan to finish both series to be sure.

Because some parts of the plot do rely on classic tropes (which to be fair, were less established in the 1980s when Yep wrote this), older or heavy fantasy readers or even readers familiar with Chinese-based fantasies might find this less intriguing. Yet Yep brings several intriguing characters to vivid life, and even if we know what will happen to Thorn eventually, seeing how he gets there is part of the fun.

I didn’t love the aesthetics of this cover, it feels very 1990s. But what I do love is having an Asian character (especially a boy!) prominently featured on the front. That’s especially important because the book is not particularly ethnic. Yep is Chinese-American; he includes chopsticks and some nods to Chinese setting and myth, but it could just as easily be read through a different lens. Without the cover, afterword, and prior knowledge of the author’s ethnicity, this could be read as a generic fantasy.

A brief Afterword on page 213 of Dragon of the Lost Sea explains author Laurence Yep’s inspiration from Chinese mythology.

The content for adults to be aware of includes several spoilers, which I’ll keep to this paragraph. Thorn is an orphan, who works for the innkeeper in order to survive and endures frequent beatings and constant mockery. Shimmer is outcast from her people for stealing an item willed to her by her mother. Her people are also nomadic refugees after their homeland was magically stolen, many of them have died in the attempt to recover their homeland. In her peasant woman guise she is also attacked and mocked. Civet was an unwilling child (or possibly adolescent) bride who was killed and magically reanimated in the process of her magical “wedding” and suffers significant trauma as a result. She’s literally frozen in time mentally and emotionally in what is actually a remarkable exploration of PTSD, especially for the time period this was written in. Characters are restrained, giving sleeping potion, and in one case tricked into eating a hair which becomes a magical chain. A human village is repeatedly, devastatingly flooded.

The main characters get in several fights and have a few debates about right and wrong. Although the spoilery list above was probably a bit shocking, I felt this still fell within US standards for MG reading. The publisher has marked this book as “12up”, and I would consider it more of an older MG title, not for sensitive readers.

However, the worst events all happen off page, and the writing shows a lot of sensitivity to the various characters. Sexism in particular is called out as wrong. Shimmer even remarks at one point that one shouldn’t sit down and listen to one’s enemies stories because it becomes too difficult to fight once you see their point of view!

Although this series is likely to be less interesting to avid fantasy readers, it’s still a good addition to school and library collections. I hope that it will get a reissue with a cover that updates the old border and garish color combinations but keeps an Asian boy front and center. Recommended.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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