Sunday, November 29, 2009

Review of The Dragon's Pearl by Devin Jordan

Jordan, Devin. The Dragon's Pearl. Simon & Schuster, 2009.

Sixteen-year-old Marco Polo (yes, that Marco Polo) has always chafed at having to stay home in safe old Venice while his father and uncle go gallivanting about the globe, so when his uncle comes home from an expedition with the dread news that Marco's father has been captured by creepy half-man/half-animal creatures under the sway of a magician named Arghun, Marco is determined to set off over the Insurmountable Mountains to the Unknown Lands (what we'd call Asia) to rescue him.

Shortly thereafter, Marco's uncle is murdered, cementing Marco's resolve. He and his friend Amelio (the son of a trusted household servant) set off for Constantinople and then, after meeting up with an ally of the Polos, find a guide and set off for the Unknown Lands, where magic is still alive and well and where, despite the power of Kublai Khan, an evil force is threatening to take over.

This book starts out promisingly with a swashbuckling practice sword fight between Marco and Amelio and then a quick and smooth transition from Venice to Constantinople. I do love fast-paced buddy stories in which a pair of friends fall into and haul each other out of all manner of scrapes, and at first this seemed to be such a tale. However, although the pace of the action gallops along, the two friends seem at times to be almost accidental travel companions - not only do the boys remain only sketchily drawn as characters, but they don't interact much and thus their friendship remains somewhat theoretical. Amelio has the potential to be a character along the lines of Harry Potter's friend Ron - but he remains a cipher. Even the cool little imp that adopts him is completely ignored except when the plot needs the creature to get the friends out of a jam.

The exotic setting - an Asia as yet undiscovered by Europeans and seething with magic - has lots of potential, some of which is realized in well-written scenes like the ones in the city of Bukhara, with its hillside location and its enormous marketplace full of intoxicating sights, sounds, and scents. However, the Unknown Lands and their people are left almost completely undescribed, leaving the reader with nothing to visualize except dots on a map. Certainly, no effort was made, other than the character of Kublai Khan and the fact that his daughter has black hair, to make this fantasy Asia bear any resemblance to the real thing. And considering what an amazing place Asia of 1300 was, this is a real pity.

This tale also suffers from some clumsy writing. Awkward sentences like "And when Kokachin refused to remove his headdress, they allowed him to remain consumed by his shrouds" are a bit too common. "Consumed" by his shrouds? Did they have teeth? Arghun, the villainous magician, is a stock character of such complete evil that he is of no interest whatsoever, given to spouting such ludicrous phrases as "I shall possess the wind dragon and all will tremble" and "These are my dragon claws. They're about to feast on your flesh."

And one last quibble - although this wonderful world of ours is composed of men and women, approximately 50% of each, you wouldn't know it from The Dragon's Pearl. There is only one female in the entire book, and she only appears as female at the end (having been in a male disguise before). Yes, books about dudes having adventures are all very well - but there was a bit too much testosterone in this one. I'm hoping the next installment will contain a few more female characters.

I do recommend this book as an adequate fantasy adventure with an unusual slant and enough action to carry readers effortlessly to the finish - just don't expect perfection (except in the compelling jacket art by Jim di Bartolo). For ages 11 to 15.

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