Saturday, January 21, 2012

Review: The Coming of the Dragon

by Rebecca Barnhouse
Age Recommendation: Middle Grade, Young Adult
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published October 26th 2010 by Random House Books for Young Readers
Series: Standalone, but companion book Peaceweaver coming out in March 2012.

Summary (from Goodreads)
When he was a baby, Rune washed up onshore in a boat, along with a sword and a pendant bearing the runes that gave him his nickname. Some people thought he was a sacrifice to the gods and wanted to send him right back to the sea. Luckily for Rune, King Beowulf disagreed. He lifted the boy from the boat and gave him to Amma, a wisewoman living on a farm far removed from the king’s hall, to raise as she saw fit.

Sixteen years later, Rune spends his summers laboring on the farm. And at King Beowulf’s request, he comes to the hall each winter for weapons training. But somehow he never quite fits in. Many people still fear he will bring a curse on the kingdom. Then a terrible thing happens. On a lonely crag on a mountain that belongs to the giants, someone awakens a dragon. It is time for Rune to find the warrior inside himself and prove to the doubters once and for all that he is a true hero.

Spoilers that are revealed in the epic Beowulf are hidden in Orange.
Spoilers that are not revealed in Beowulf are hidden in Purple.

My Review
Some parts of The Coming of the Dragon were very enjoyable. Others, less so. Barnhouse obviously has  talent as a writer, but the retelling of Beowulf was not very interesting to me. Once she struck out into her own story, the entire book became much more engaging.

The Retelling
The early parts of The Coming of the Dragon went very slowly even for my standards, which are pretty patient. I appreciated all of the detail Barnhouse put into the story, but I didn't connect with Rune, which made it difficult to get through the story.

The retelling aspect didn't really work for me. Many of the characters, Rune especially, felt somewhat shallow, as if Barnhouse made up backstories to fit their eventual actions, rather than letting the backstories inform the actions. (Of course, that is exactly what she did do, so it's understandable, but it could have been executed better). Rune passed my version of Small Review's WWMCD (What would main character do) test every time, not because of any great depth in his character, and not because the Beowulf story constrained him (although that was part of it) but because he was so predictable. He had the same thought processes over and over, making it very easy to guess what he'd do next.

After the Retelling
Once Beowulf dies, everything seemed to pick up. All at once, the charaters seemed deeper and more likable, Rune was easier to understand, the mystery of his family was more interesting. Once Barnhouse was on her own, without the Beowulf story to stick to, everything seemed to get better.

My favorite character, although she got very little page time, was undoubtedly Hild. She seemed like such a strong character, and I just loved that Barnhouse let her save the day rather than Rune. She seems like such a great character. I can't wait to get to know her better in Peaceweaver, the companion novel to The Coming of the Dragon, coming out in March.

P.S. Bonus points for having a character named Finn! I have an affinity for characters named Finn, which I suspect comes from Shannon Hale's Books of Bayern.  But somehow Finns tend to be really good characters, and The Coming of the Dragon was no exception.

Overall Thoughts: Barnhouse can (and did) write an engaging story in the time period of Beowulf. While retelling the epic was not her strength, the worldbuilding was excellent and once she was out of the constraints the retelling demanded, it was clear to see her strength as a writer.

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