Dragon Steel (Dragon Quartet #2) by Laurence Yep.
HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, originally published 1985, my edition 1993.
MG fantasy, 276 pages.
Lexile: 800L .
AR Level: 5.8 (worth 8.0 points) .
NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for the previous book.
Exiled princess Shimmer and the Thorn by her side continue their quest to restore the lost dragon sea, although it’s a more complicated task than they first believed.
As I was reading this, I couldn’t help thinking that it was everything I wanted from The Dragon Egg Princess, although this series was published long before and now out of print. The very 1990s covers are starting to grow on me – while definitely dated and not of any interest to my own children, they do accurately depict characters and scenes from the books. I also am easily impressed by pre 2010 books with openly diverse covers.
In this volume we are still following Shimmer and Thorn, and several characters from the previous book are around too, but there’s a different focus. Civet is no longer the main villain and what they’re up against now is much trickier. We find out more about what happened to Shimmer’s people after their homeland was lost and finally get to meet some other dragons.
A new major character was introduced, Indigo. I love that this series has a gentle, emotional male lead and a brash, selfish human female lead, because that’s fairly unusual. But I just didn’t get into her story that much and found some of the characterization, especially the comparisons to a younger Shimmer, too heavy-handed. Maybe that’s why this story felt significantly longer even though it’s less than a hundred pages more.
Laurence Yep is a good writer but he’s got some problems with naming. Since we know that the next two titles are Dragon Cauldron and Dragon War, it’s easy to make some basic assumptions about what will happen next in the plot after reading this, and I felt a lot of this book was setting things up for the following volumes – which meant introducing readers to a handful of new groups and large cast of characters.
The other thing I really missed from the first volume was even a brief mention of the stories that inspired this. I’ve read a version of Journey to the West (albeit a children’s edition) but don’t have a great basis in Chinese folklore, so I was anticipating the author’s note – sadly this book didn’t have one. If these books are eventually reprinted, I certainly hope that they will include a little commentary on both the inspiration and the history behind their publication.
Although overall I can’t say this was as good as the first volume, I did like a lot of pieces of it. The bits about the dragon relics, learning what happened to Shimmer’s people, and all the magic was excellent. I was less excited by the court politics and could have skipped that part. The final hundred pages, which focus very much on interactions with a particular character, were my favorite part of the book. Oh, and I was a bit sad that krakens were evil dragon-eaters here, since the last kraken book I read cast them in a much more positive characterization.
Care of the environment is a reoccurring theme in this quartet and sadly that message is still timely even several decades later. In particular, there are some scenes with endangered plants that gave some strong emotional reactions. Although this is a fantasy book, I could also see adults using this story to open a conversation about modern slavery through forced labor – although it isn’t explicitly labeled as such in this story.
Content warnings for slavery including humans working as unwilling servants, feuds, imprisonment, beatings, parents and other family lost, interspecies hatred, portals closing, lost homelands, servant class, mercenaries, forced labor, intimidation, theft and attempted theft, near drowning, mining, and probably a few others I’ve missed.
I enjoyed Dragon of the Lost Sea enough to track down the rest of this out-of-print series. While there were still good elements here, this volume felt more like a series starter than its own story. I’d recommend it for those who liked the first and are interested in reading a longer MG series based on Chinese mythology. As a younger reader, I probably would have enjoyed it more, so I think the target audience might still enjoy it, if the dated aspects could be overlooked.