Book Review: How To Train Your Dragon

My boyfriend introduced me to How To Train Your Dragon, the animated fantasy film, and I loved it. We then watched the sequel, How To Train Your Dragon 2 (creative) and I loved it more. We’ve re-watched them several times. I didn’t even know there were books. So, at his suggestion, I read How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell.

Hmm.

Spoiler Warning: There will be some.

How To Train Your Dragon is the first in a series of twelve children’s books about Hiccup, the son of a Viking chief, as he overcomes great obstacles on his journey to become Heroic.

Visually, it’s a nice little book. It has childlike My Image [How To Train Your Dragon Book] handwriting and drawings throughout, so it’s perfect for Cowell’s target audience; the idea is that the book was genuinely  written by Hiccup – hence his illustrations and annotations – and she was just his Old Norse translator. A nice touch.

The descriptions are as vivid and not complicated – as you’d expect in a children’s book, and there are also some witty moments.

The key plot points are clearly identifiable:

  • Hiccup is a below average Viking boy who wants to achieve but struggles under the pressure of being the Chief’s son
  • Snoutlout is Hiccup’s cousin, eager for Hiccup to fail so he can become chief instead
  • Hiccup is concerned about not fulfilling his father’s Viking expectations
  • It is only when Berk is placed in danger, Hiccup’s usefulness and value is recognised

These are (no surprises here) “obvious” for an adult reader, but this the sort of good narrative structure a children’s book should have, so I wanted to point it out.

However, it is very different to the films. An enlightening comment, I know.

The characters are different – without seeing them frequently “onscreen” like you would in a film, I felt forced to rely on a few, infrequent small illustrations and their initial descriptions at the start of the book to remember who they are; it was hard to keep track of the long-winded Viking names.

My Image [How To Train Your Dragon 1]

Another striking difference between the book and the film is that in the film, Berk is an island scared of, and enraged by, dragons because they believe they are violent creatures that need to be destroyed. The community is only persuaded to think otherwise following Hiccup’s discovery of, and his blossoming friendship with, Toothless the Night Fury, one of the most legendary and fearful dragons in existence. However, in the book, Berk is an island that already believes that dragons can be, and should be, domesticated pets. It is only once the Viking boys in training are given the useless handbook How To Train Your Dragon, Hiccup must create his own, personalised, methods to tame his dragon Toothless.

 A second significant difference is that in the book, the dragons can talk. This creates a new layer of characterisation because they can communicate thoughts and feelings with each other, and their owners. This means that, instead of the smiling but silent Toothless from the film, he is whiny and always back-chatting. It’s very difficult to see him as the loveable, heart-warming, protective but powerful and incredibly rare Night Fury from the film – the Toothless I love.

I’m so clearly biased – sorry – and I preferred the films to the book. I can see exactly why kids would love this sort of book though: it’s funny, it’s adventurous, it’s easy to read and it’s imaginative.

I won’t read the rest of the series, but at least I now have a flavour of the writing which inspired two films I greatly enjoy.

How To Train Your Dragon 3 is in production and is due to be released in 2019.

– Judith

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Book Review: Enemies Rising

Enemies Rising is the first story in a series by Paul Stretton-Stephens.

The story is about Tacrem, a “Downsider” – an underwater creature who has the ability to run, swim and jump incredibly quickly. He lives in an underwater settlement called Cetardia, below the “Upsiders” – that is, humans. According to Amazon, ‘Tacrem undertakes a rare and daring mission’ to confront the threat of “Upsiders” who wish to discover and exploit Cetardia for personal gain.

The genre of Enemies Rising is a mix between young adult, fantasy, science fiction, and action, with a message about the environment added in too.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a young adult story without a destiny to fulfil, and so the reader is plunged into the action straightaway, following Tacrem, a teenage “Downsider” with a mysterious purpose.

Initially, the opening to the story made me hopeful for an unusual fantasy read – unlike anything I’d ever read before, but sadly, I was left disappointed. Whilst the opening was action-packed, it was slightly overpacked, making events feel convoluted and confusing; I wasn’t always sure what was happening.

The population of ‘Cetardia’ all have bizarre names – for the mere sake of it, it would seem – and bizarre species, with the city itself lacking in vivid description. I couldn’t help but imagine it as Otoh Gunga, an alien underwater city from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (and given how great that film was, it wasn’t exactly the best comparison to draw).

My Photo [Enemies Rising 1].png

Furthermore, these species, places and names were not explained. This was incredibly difficult to visualise anybody, or remember who they were, or their characteristics – a fundamental issue in science fiction or fantasy, where alien life is so often pivotal to the narrative; it is important the reader knows and understands what these new creatures are.

Having said that, the best parts of the story were when Tacrem’s narrative was blended with the narrative of two “Upsiders” – climatologist Professor Jack Berry and his daughter Jess. This grounded the story in a level of reality, so I could follow more easily what was going on.

Whilst the story lacked in places, as I’ve described, I actually liked the premise Stretton-Stephens had planned: A fictional underwater settlement faces challenges because of the impact of humans, a challenge used to reflect a message to the reader about the environment and protection of ocean life. This is exemplified by Professor Berry’s role in the story as a climatologist. However, the execution of this premise fell short, I thought, due to the lack of written style, flair, and proficiency.

A lot of the sentences felt “clunky” – they didn’t feel dynamic or natural, and Stretton-Stephens regularly transitions between reported action, reported speech, direct speech, indirect speech, and indirect thought, and these transitions were somewhat overwhelming. Although some readers may be able to overlook an interesting story told with poor writing, that is something I just cannot do.

In addition, Tacrem’s ability to ‘Mingle’ with a person – that is, to enter their mind telepathically to gain key information – was always described with oddly sexual language such as:

  • ‘In their short time together, Tacrem felt a rush of intense hear enter his body and a simultaneous tingling feeling that engulfed him from head to toe.’
  • ‘Sometimes they would thrust through him individually, and other times in pairs. Only at the end, after what seemed an age to Tacrem, did the three enter him together.’

This language jarred with the tone of the rest of the story, and I have no idea whether Stretton-Stephens intended this description to have these connotations, or simply didn’t realise.

The ending was also rather abrupt, which clashed with the apparent set-up of a “cliffhanger”, and I think where Stretton-Stephens chose to end the narrative was an overall odd decision.

To conclude, Enemies Rising missed the mark in a lot of places.

Whilst to some this review may seem overly critical, I want to emphasise that I critique books, not to grind the writer down – I appreciate how much hard work must have gone into writing this story – but to explain in detail what I liked and what I didn’t in the hopes they can use that feedback to improve upon their work.

The genre and narrative concept behind Enemies Rising were okay, but the writing style disappointed me greatly, and unfortunately, I will not be reading the sequel, Enemies Rising Part 2.

– Judith

Book Review: The Eyre Affair

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Frforde, draws on a mix of genres, such as humour thriller, sci-fi, detective and fantasy. It tells the story of Thursday Next, a literary detective in an alternative 1985, where everyone is obsessed with literature. The real world and the “book world” overlap, quite literally bringing citizens’ favourite book characters to life, which is all fun and games… until Jane Eyre is kidnapped.

My favourite aspect of The Eyre Affair was its witty references to “pop” literature, such as the Dickens’ books – this reminded me of Dickensian, the BBC drama set within the fictional world of Dickens – or the Shakespeare/Marlowe conspiracy theory. At times, these references seemed a little heavy-handed, but I think this excess paid off, adding to the charm of the alternative reality.

I also appreciated how Thursday’s own narrative, in some ways, mirrored the narrative of Jane Eyre. This was a clever and well-executed idea, and I enjoyed the allusion to how Thursday’s intervention and “reconstruction” of Jane Eyre resulted in the Bronte story we know and love today.

Yet despite its title, The Eyre Affair took longer than expected to focus on its main plot, the Jane Eyre kidnapping.

A lot of time was spent building the world with at times clunky or (dare I say it) cheesy sci-fi abstract descriptions, and introducing characters who, to me, held no significant role in the narrative. Although world-building is a significant part of any series, I prefer books where this description and scene-setting is done more subtly, rather than a heavy exposition.

However, the time spent in The Eyre Affair background and character descriptions may reduce the level of exposition needed further down the line, and these characters may well be more significant in future books in the Thursday Next series, so I can’t complain too much.

Overall, despite my criticisms, I really enjoyed The Eyre Affair. Although he “relies” on existing texts and authors (to an extent) to construct his own story, he blends his own ideas and style with existing characters and texts well, and it was a fun, light-hearted read.

I’d love to read the rest of the Thursday Next series, as well as more books by Jasper Fforde, an author previously unknown to me.

– Judith