Monday, January 4, 2010

Review of Dragon Games by P.W. Catanese

Catanese, P.W. Dragon Games (Books of Umber). Aladdin, 2010.

In Happenstance Found, part 1 of the Books of Umber trilogy, we met Happenstance, a boy who wakes up in a cave with absolutely no memory of his past. His startling green eyes and strange powers (an ability to see in the dark, to run and jump like no other human, no need to sleep, and much more) mark him as a Meddler, an extremely rare and mysterious breed who can learn to alter events and fates. He joins the household of Umber, a charismatic man from another world, in order to learn to harness his powers and rescue Umber's world from its horrible fate.

Despite the its title, part 2 only gets to the dragons towards the very end. The irrepressible Umber has learned that the kingdom of Sarnica, ruled by an upstart dictator and his cruel son, has managed to obtain a large cache of live dragon eggs, and Umber, being eternally and incurably curious, is determined to see the dragons that have hatched. On their sea voyage, Umber and his companions - not just the reluctant Happenstance, who craves safety and security, but also strong, truth-telling Oates - have many strange and dangerous adventures. In Sarnica, the appalling treatment of the dragons forces them to rescue the creatures and make a hasty get-away, aided by the pilot and strange crew of a most unusual airship.

In Happenstance Found, I was entranced by the intriguing mystery of Happenstance's origins and by Umber's charisma and charm. In Dragon Games, we learn a bit more about Happenstance's past, but we are left with more questions than ever. Umber's forceful personality, while still fascinating, comes across as almost pathological when his risk-taking puts everyone around him in danger over and over - his charm isn't enough anymore to excuse such behavior, and even his most loyal friends must occasionally rein him in. Luckily, they often fail, and the adventures that ensue reminded me of Gulliver's Travels, with exotic islands and bizarre creatures galore.

Happenstance comes into his own in this book. Despite his longing for a quiet life, he sheds his passivity and takes matters into his own hands several times, culminating in the rescue not just of a baby dragon and dozens of eggs but also of a dungeon full of prisoners. He also begins to explore his powers a bit more, but they remain shadowy and uncertain still.

There are so many unanswered questions, not only about Happenstance but about Umber and his doomed world (which we assume to be our own Earth) that it's hard to imagine that they will all be cleared up in the third and last book. I'm looking forward to learning more about not just those two characters but about Balfour, Oates, and Sophie (who doesn't appear in this book at all, although we learn a bit about her past). That baby dragon and all its unhatched kin will surely play a larger role. And what of the fate of Umber's adopted kingdom, which is wracked by deadly political intrigue? It's going to be hard to wait for the final installment of this creative and unusual series.

Recommended for ages 10 to 13.

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