Dragon War (Dragon Quartet #4) by Laurence Yep.
Harper Trophy, HarperCollins, New York, 1992.
MG fantasy, 314 pages.
Lexile: 850L .
AR Level: 5.9 (worth 11.0) .
NOTE: This review contains spoilers for previous volumes.
Princess Shimmer’s companions have faced many challenges during her quest to restore the inland sea and bring her people back to their home. One has died, one was magically transformed into an inanimate object, another learned that her entire home and people have been destroyed, and the Monkey King has had his pride and several of his tail hairs wrecked. But probably the worst was when they let the Boneless King out of his long imprisonment…
… from which he has joined forces with a ruthless human called the Butcher, Shimmer’s traitorous brother Pomfret, and a variety of other characters who may or may not understand that the Boneless King’s ultimate goal is the total destruction of theirs and every world.
Just when we might have thought that the stakes couldn’t get any higher, Shimmer and friends are now fighting a very unequal battle against the forces of total destruction, and the two groups who could stop this madness (humans and dragons) are too busy waging horrible destructive war on each other to actually keep their world alive.
When this is summarized, it really sounds like a modern, politicized plot even though this was written in the early 1990s! But this merely exemplifies how timeless fantasy can be, and how it can often remain relevant longer than many other genres.
The covers on the versions of this series I read screamed 90’s fantasy (although otherwise accurate to the story) but the story itself wasn’t too dated. Few points stood out as something that would need to be edited or altered to appeal to modern readers. Granted, urban fantasy and magical realism is popular in MG fantasy right now, with high and science fantasy taking a backseat. But this sort of epic story definitely still has some readers, and relatively few diverse examples.
This volume, while just slightly longer than the previous, is a full hundred pages longer than the first installment of the quartet (Dragon of the Lost Sea) and Yep needs that space to neatly resolve all the epic plots that have been unfurling across the last three books. Thankfully, not many new characters are introduced in this book, as we revisit many from earlier in the series. Certain subplots that have been heavily (perhaps at times too obviously) foreshadowed in previous volumes were laid to rest. Other than a twist in Indigo’s resolution that I didn’t see coming, most of the endings were very much what I’d anticipated. That didn’t prevent them from being satisfying though, and overall I found this book worth reading.
Another quibble is that some minor characters showed a great deal of growth between appearances which felt somewhat unrealistic. I also really wished for a map in this particular book especially. While previous volumes either moved more slowly including lots of travel time, or mainly kept to one location, this book involved a lot of movement and much less time spent traveling or detailed descriptions of the travel.
While when the switch was first made, I was not happy about the change in viewpoint character, at this point it’s clear that having the Monkey King as the first-person narrator just makes sense. He’s able to move more quickly and freely, and even when he isn’t supposed to be listening, he’s able to send his mini-me tail hairs off to spy, so there are far fewer times that a change in viewpoint or a summary is needed to keep the plot moving.
I do wonder if Yep planned this transition all along or if it was necessitated by the plot. Some elements have had hints dropped since book one, but the changing viewpoint felt more abrupt. Despite having read each book at least twice, I’ve been waiting to read the next book until my review is complete, both to motivate myself to finish reviews, and to avoid confusing plot points or other elements from book to book. So I’m eagerly anticipating a reread from the beginning, knowing how the story will end.
Epic or high fantasy is very difficult to condense into a middle grade wordcount and plot complexity level. That Yep did so in the 1980s/90s, with diverse characters and stories drawn from Chinese mythos not likely to be familiar to many of his readers, is especially impressive.
The same author’s Tiger trilogy is being reissued with new covers (probably because of the movie version currently in production) – I sincerely hope this series gets the same treatment. These are currently still available in libraries or used bookstores. Please check them out, and if you enjoy the quartet, let the publisher know that a reissue would be appreciated. I recommend the entire series as a rare example of diverse middle grade epic fantasy quest literature.