Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Book Review | The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

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In the good old days, magic was powerful, unregulated by government, and even the largest spell could be woven without filling in magic release form B1-7g.

Then the magic started fading away.

Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange runs Kazam, an employment agency for soothsayers and sorcerers. But work is drying up. Drain cleaner is cheaper than a spell, and even magic carpets are reduced to pizza delivery.

So it's a surprise when the visions start. Not only do they predict the death of the Last Dragon at the hands of a dragonslayer, they also point to Jennifer, and say something is coming.

Big Magic...

If you've ever wondered what fantasy could be, if it didn't take itself so very, very seriously, look no further than Fforde.

The Last Dragonslayer is I think an ideal introduction to his work. Pitched ostensibly as a fantasy for young adults, Jasper Fforde's ninth novel in the first in a new trilogy with no real entry requirements, about dragons and magic and, as ever, the soul-crushing weight of bureaucracy. And come one, come all, because there's nothing childish about this book. It's short, is all.

Short, and so sweet I'd advise you brush your teeth both before and after reading it. But dear readers: do read it.

In the absence of The Great Zambini, who vanished in a puff of smoke at the climax of a magic show for birthday babies six months ago, the indentured orphan Jennifer Strange manages Kazam, which is to say one of only two remaining sorcerers-for-hire outfits in all the twenty-eight nations of the Ununited Kingdoms.

You must be wondering what happened to all the others. Well:

A half-century ago Mystical Arts Management was considered a sound career choice and citizens fought for a place. These days, it was servitude only, as with agricultural labour, hotels and fast-food joints. Of the twenty or so Houses of Enchantment that had existed fifty years ago, only Kazam in the Kingdom of Hereford and Industrial Magic over in Stroud were still going. It was an industry in terminal decline. The power of magic had been ebbing for centuries and, with it, the relevance of sorcerers. Once a wizard would have the ear of a king; today we rewire houses and unblock drains. (p.19)

Lamentably, even that's an almighty guddle in this day and age, because "an unwelcome legacy from the fourteenth century" means "any unlicensed act of sorcery done outisde the boundaries of a House of Enchantment is punishable by... public burning." (p.52) So for every lead pipe Kazam's sorcerers are paid a proverbial pittance to levitate, Jennifer must fill out a slew of paperwork. But work the various individuals under Kazam's care must, because "even inexplicable entities comprised of charged particles kept in order by a weak magnetic field need cash to survive." (p.45)

Wisdom for the ages, there!

Anyway, when pre-cogs all across the country start predicting, day and date, the death of the last dragon, the thought of a vast land-grab - for the dragon Montcassion has 320 square miles all to itself - stirs the people of the Ununited Kingdoms into a frenzy, such that soon war seems sure to break out between Hereford and its put-upon neighbours. Sensibly, Jennifer doesn't want that to happen, but only the dragonslayer can enter the dragonlands - the better to talk some sense into Moncassion - and she's no dragonslayer.

Or... wait. What? She is?

Oh. Alrighty then.

The Last Dragonslayer feels all too brief at less than 300 pages of rather large print, but other than that, there's not a complaint I would make about it. It is simply a delightful little thing, complete with a perpetual teapot and feral sheep, which is to say a quick-witted, brilliantly British sense of humour and an imagination glad to go there, where other authors wouldn't dare, for fear of having fun... which as we all know lessens a text.

But no. No it doesn't, and I would argue that The Last Dragonslayer is proof positive of that contrary conclusion. Whimsy and idiosyncrasy may well be acquired tastes among some genre readers, but equally the staunch self-importance of so many more celebrated sf and fantasy sagas can leave leagues of newcomers cold. Jasper Fforde, meanwhile, will warm your cockles through and through, presuming you can swallow the inimitable silliness he has made his bread and butter.

If not, never mind. After all, in this world "unimaginable horrors share the day with moments of confusing perplexity and utter randomness. To call it a madhouse would insult even the maddest of madhouses." (p.17) Home sweet home for Jasper Fforde fans, then. And I shouldn't wonder that The Last Dragonslayer will win over a fair few newcomers to the fold too, to whom I would bid a very warm welcome.

Pray stay awhile?


The Last Dragonslayer
by Jasper Fforde

UK Publication: November 2010, Hodder & Stoughton

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