Monday, July 21, 2008

Crouching Keeper, Hidden Dragon

Dragonkeeper Series
By Carole Wilkinson

Dragonkeeper *** (YA ****)

Garden of the Purple Dragon ** (YA ***)

Dragon Moon *** (YA ****)

Culture Shock ***½

Summary: As a YA series, these books are quick and breezy reads that will entertain the young reader. For adults, the bits of Chinese culture and history should keep interest just long enough to get through the improbable storylines.

Not often do I find books by western authors whose protagonists are Chinese or Japanese. And more often, if they touch on Asia at all, the characters are Japanese. Perhaps this is because it is the easiest of all Asian countries for a westerner to identify with since it is the most western of all the Asian countries. So these books captured my attention immediately because they are set in ancient China. What also surprised me was that it is a Young Adult (YA) series.

The Dragonkeeper series by Australian writer Carole Wilkinson follows the adventures of Ping, a young slave girl who helps an ancient dragon escape from the clutches of an abusive Imperial Dragonkeeper. In the first book, Ping helps Danzi the dragon travel to the land beyond while being pursued by a ruthless dragon hunter. The second and third books relate Ping’s journeys with another dragon, Kai, and their troubles trying to find their place in China.

The first and third books are the strongest of the series. The first provides the reader with vivid details about life in Han Dynasty China and also gives us a great set of characters in Ping and Danzi. The third book is also strong because the story centers on the relationship between the dragons and their keepers. We finally discover more about the complex relationship between dragon and man and the events that lead to catastrophe. Dragon Moon is a good story about man’s stewardship (or lack thereof) of the creatures on earth and the environmental message will resonate well with some readers.

However, the second book, Garden of the Purple Dragon, is the weakest of the three. It has Ping and Kai navigating the maze of the Imperial Bureaucracy. Ping makes friends with the young Emperor of China Liu Che who appoints her as Imperial Dragonkeeper. This relationship feels contrived and did not ring true to this reader. Ping is a peasant girl. Despite this fact, she is befriended by the Emperor and given an Imperial title. I know Ping is the protagonist, but the events surrounding her ascendance in the Imperial Court seemed highly improbable to me and will likely feel off even for YA readers.

Finally, since this is a YA series, the modern sounding dialogue and writing style were clearly chosen to engage its target audience. If you are searching for high prose reminiscent of Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori, you will not find it here. The language is simple, straightforward and clean making the reading light and breezy.

Overall, if you want a quick and easy read that takes place in ancient China, you could do worse than take these books to the beach this summer. Just remember that the target audience is Young Adults (which is why I gave each book two ratings)

Culture Shock: Yes, I gave it ***½ and not *** or ****. Why? It deserves a **** because of all the Asian content. There are a lot of Chinese words and the author includes a glossary. The author also gives the reader a lot of cultural information and history to go along with the language. The reason for the half is because as a YA series, the author manages to simplify things for the younger reader. Although I would not recommend using this book as a history text, it does impart quite a bit between its covers.

Nit Pick: the number eight is frowned upon in Dragon Moon since it is “double 4” and 4 sounds like the word “death”. It is the number nine that is revered. The number eight in modern Chinese culture is definitely a good luck number but so is the number 9. I do not know if this is a modern sensibility was the same in Han Dynasty China. I would be curious to find out.

For more information, go to Carole Wilkinson's website.

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