After a week of rain, floods and general gloom in my part of the world, a cheerful book is needed, so I’m recommending `The Last Dragonslayer’ by Jasper Fforde. Fforde is best known for his unclassifiable series of novels about Thursday Next, a detective tasked with policing the world of fiction. `The Last Dragonslayer’ is the first in a Fantasy trilogy about 15 year old Jennifer Strange and was published as book for Young Adults. In Britain, it is available in every possible format, including as an iPhone app. In America, it came out in hardback and on Kindle last month. Lots of entertaining background information on the Dragonslayer series can be found on the author’s quirky website at http://www.jasperfforde.com

`The Last Dragonslayer’ is set in an alternative version of the present in the Kingdom of Hereford, one of the 28 states which make up the unUnited Kingdoms. Jennifer Strange was left as a baby in the glove-compartment of a Volkswagon Beetle and brought up in The Blessed Lady of the Lobster Home for Foundlings. At the age of 10 she became an indentured servant at Zambini Towers, home of Kazam Mystical Arts Management. After the sudden disappearance of the Great Zambini, Jennifer is acting manager. This isn’t an easy job since of the 52 sorcerers who live at Zambini Towers `most were retired or too insane to be of any practical use’.  The power of magic is slowly fading, which may be linked to the declining dragon population. Now magic is mainly used for trivial things like rescuing cats from trees, cleaning drains, or delivering pizzas. It’s hard for Kazam to earn money or respect and, under the regime of  King Snodd IV, magic is strictly regulated. Sorcerers need a Certificate of Conformity and the correct form must be filled in before any act of magic is performed. The penalty for unregulated magic is death. Quite a responsibility for Jennifer.

When the story begins, Jennifer is having to mentor Tiger Prawns, a foundling orphaned in the `Troll Wars’ , who has been sent to work at Kazam. There is an unusual power surge, which just might mean the return of `Big Magic’, and several pre-cognitives foresee that the local dragon is going to die by the sword of a Dragonslayer. An ancient man tells Jennifer that, thanks to a prophecy by the Mighty Shandar, the greatest sorcerer who has ever lived, she must become the next  Dragonslayer. Jennifer doesn’t want to kill  anything but she is the only person who can enter the mysterious Dragonlands without being turned into powder. She soon finds herself coping with a sarcastic dragon, unreliable visions of the Mighty Shandar, an irritable monarch who threatens her friends, and a perfidious representative of Consolidated Useful Stuff PLC, the unUnited Kingdoms’ `leading purveyor of cheap and shoddy goods’.  Can plucky Jennifer work out who to trust in time to save her friends, stop a ridiculous war and protect the last of the dragons? Probably not.

You can tell from my plot summary that this is anti-heroic Fantasy. As in his adult books, Fforde targets absurd bureaucracy, pompous authority figures, crass commercialism and greedy multi-nationals.  Jennifer Strange seems very much like a younger version of the famous Thursday Next, but she’s still an attractive heroine. In contrast to the weird and moody people she looks after at Zambini Towers,  kind, practical Jennifer is a beacon of good sense.  Her unknown parentage adds a dash of mystery and the bond between lonely fellow foundlings Jennifer and Tiger is a touching one. `The Last Dragonslayer’ is packed  with extraordinary characters such as grouchy blind Zenobia, Mother Superior at the Blessed Lady of the Lobster,  William of Anorak, a train-spotter with a mind full of useless facts, Patrick of Ludlow, a Levitator with an unfortunate addiction to marzipan, and Welsh sorcerers, Amazing Dennis and Astonishing David Price, the most unidentical twins on record.  There are in fact too many characters for the reader to get to know any of them well. Depth of characterization isn’t something you expect from Fforde.  What he does offer is non-stop inventiveness, fantastical plot twists, jokes, wordplay and a heart in the right place.

The actual story is a bit slow to get underway in `The Last Dragonslayer’ .  It takes several chapters for Jennifer to introduce Tiger to Zambini Towers and its magical inhabitants. This hardly matters because – what with the oak-tree in the lobby, self-cleaning rooms, an enchanted biscuit-tin, the ghostly Transient Moose, and the Mysterious X who smells of unwashed socks and peanut butter – it’s a pretty interesting place. Early on, Jennifer hears the official history of the failed attempts to exterminate dragons and how the Mighty Shandar made peace with them.  Like so much that she is told, not all of it proves to be true. Discovering what Shandar and the dragons were really up to makes for an intriguing plot and when the true role of the Dragonslayer was eventually revealed, I was surprised and  delighted. `The Last Dragonslayer’  is full of absurd but convincing details – such as the driving age in Hereford  being based on emotional maturity, so that Jennifer gets her licence at 13 but most men can’t take their driving test until they’re in their thirties – and wonderful creations like Jennifer’s beloved Quarkbeast a metal-eating monster who looks like `an open knife drawer on legs’ but has the temperament of a labrador. If you want a story to make you smile on a rainy day, this could be the book for you. Until the week after next…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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