Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Dragon Rider, by Cornelia Funke


Really more a four-and-a-half star book. And if the villain had been scarier, it would have been a five star book. The other characters--whether dragon, brownie, homunculus, rat, or human--are all well-drawn and entertaining, and the story is great. The themes of repentance, grace, and redemption run strongly throughout the book, and Twigleg's character in particular has a very compelling story arc. In addition, Funke includes the usual young adult themes of victorious underdogs (don't underestimate the contributions of the little people, or the 'David v. Goliath' trope), cooperation, perseverance, faith, and a hint of ecological responsibility. And it's a surprisingly multiracial for a fantasy story--the human lead is English, as is the professor he meets along the way, but the characters interact with, learn from, and are helped by people of other cultures as well, including Egypt, Pakistan, and the Himalayas.

In their adventures, the travelers (of course) run into all sorts of fantastic creatures--a rok, a basilisk, a djinn, a sea serpent, a sand man, etc. Unfortunately, most of these creatures were much more terrifying and unnerving than the actual villain. However, since they are all limited to specific locales, Funke has to turn elsewhere for a villain who can follow the heroes on their worldwide quest. And the resulting villain, though possessed of a few genuinely creepy attributes, is more bombast and bluster than actual threat. The best villains don't just offer the threat of death; they creep you out. And this villain . . . didn't. (I was reminded strongly of the villain in Disney's Sky High--a lot of self-important speechifying and not a lot to back it up.) Still, it's a great story, and I'm definitely going to give some of Funke's other books a try.

A note about the audiobook: I have listened to quite a few audiobooks , but I have never heard a narrator commit to a reading like Brendan Fraser did here. Many excellent narrators, like Neil Gaiman and Jim Dale, have great voices, and can read a story fairly straight. But very few narrators really jump into the story with unselfconscious glee. Brendan Fraser does just that. Each character has a unique voice, and a unique accent, and he even voices non-verbals and sound effects. I sincerely hope he read to his kids every night; if he does, they are lucky children indeed. He clearly threw himself into this narration with abandon, and it sounds like he had a great time. In fact, I suspect he made the book more amusing and entertaining than it would otherwise have been. I must say I look forward to listening to him narrate other books in the future.

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