Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Dragonkeeper Series - A Review

Carole Wilkinson is a fine Australian children's author who in her own words " a late start, but I’ve been trying to make up for lost time." She has now written 30 plus books, some short stories, a telemovie and some TV and planetarium scripts. Before she commenced writing at age 40 she had worked as a laboratory assistant and also a film and television writer and editor. Her books have been set in China, Egypt, and the Middle East. Her Dragonkeeper series of four books is set in ancient China and has been wonderfully received by children and critics alike. With the fourth book in the series - 'Blood Brothers' - just out, I thought it was time to review this widely acclaimed series. The series started out as a trilogy but has now had a fourth book added.  All four books are published by 'Black Dog Books' an imprint of Walker Books. The first three books are set in China in the 1st century BC, while the fourth is set in 325 AD. The books are recommended for readers aged 8+ but I would see them as ideal for children aged 9-14. If children 8-9 are less familiar with fantasy they might find some of the events depicted in the stories confronting. Mind you, 'Harry Potter' has pushed many young readers to new sensitivity 'levels' with fiction.

'Dragonkeeper' - Book 1 (2003)

The first book in the series introduces us to the main characters for the first three books. We meet a slave girl named Ping who has the job of tending to captive dragons, held secretly in a palace of the emperor in a remote region of China. We meet Long Danzi a dragon who has just become the sole survivor of what was once a collection of two dozen captives. And finally, we meet Ping's only 'friend' and companion, Hua, a pet rat who goes everywhere with her.

Ping's perception of dragon's changes with the discovery that the withdrawn and frightened dragon deep in a stone pit has a coloured 'stone' which it protects fiercely, and some strange behaviours. Through the circumstances of the death of the 2nd last dragon and the unexpected arrival of the emperor, Ping escapes with the dragon from her brutal master. A ruthless dragon hunter pursues them and the girl discovers many secrets about dragons and begins an epic journey across China. Ping carries with them a mysterious stone at the urging of Long Danzi. A stone that must be protected. This is the story of a young ten year-old girl who has been seen as worthless, unnamed and discarded, but who finds within her new strength, courage and abilities beyond her imagination. This is will be necessary to make the perilous journey and eventually, the responsibility of the 'stone' just as it breaks and Long Danzi and Hua leave her for the Isles of the Blessed.

This is a book that drags you along as a reader at a cracking pace. Within just a few pages you are hooked and reluctant to put the book down. It is a piece of wonderful historical fiction and fantasy that will appeal to children aged 9+. 

The book has won and been shortlisted for too many awards to mention in full, but these include:

Winner of the 2003 Aurelias Award
Winner of the 2004 Queensland Premier's Literary Awards
Winner of the 2006 KOALA awards

'Garden of the Purple Dragon' (2005)

In book two of the series we find Ping hiding in the shadow of the Tai Shan mountains with her precious responsibility, Kai the baby dragon. The young dragon tests her patience with its playful ways and attention seeking. How can she hope to care for a creature that will live many generations beyond her and whose wings may not fully even develop in her lifetime? She struggles to care for Kai, but gains skills quickly. Skills that are born of necessity. However, she knows that eventually she must find another keeper who will take over the task after she is too old. But eventually her old tormentor, now the Emperor's chief minister, finds her and must be confronted. However, Long Danzi has not forgotten her and sends back Hua to help her and the young Kai.

Once again Carole Wilkinson won a bucket full of awards and nominations for this book, including:

Winner of the 2006 WAYRBA Award
Winner of the 2009 KOALA Awards
Winner of the 2009 KROC Awards

'Dragon Moon' (2007)

In the third book in the series Ping and Kai continue to evade the enemies who search for the elusive dragon and its keeper. They have travelled far, but much more is to be done as Ping discovers that Long Danzi's intention all along has been to see Kai returned to live with free dragons. But danger is everywhere and deceptions of many kinds, as they set out to find the home of the remaining free dragons. Their guide is a set of complex instructions from Long Danzi that take the form of a riddle. This is the only hope that they have. But will they unravel the Chinese language puzzle? Ping knows that she must continue in her final great quest to find Kai a safe home. This is eventually accomplished and Kai is safely in the dragon haven hidden away from others and with a new responsibility. Ping makes a sad departure and begins a new life with a new companion, a boy named Jun, "the only friend who had ever come back to her".

The third book in the series has also received many awards. Principal amongst these was winning 
2008 Book of the Year in the Younger Readers Category from the Children’s Book Council of Australia. As well, the book was 2008 Winner, of the KROC (Kids Reading Oz Choice) Award (Fiction for Years 7-9).

'Blood Brothers' (2012)

The Author's Afterword in the fourth book of the Dragonkeeper series explains that there was never meant to be a fourth book; it truly was meant to be a trilogy! But Carole Wilkinson has revisited the dragon Kai, four centuries later. He is still young in dragon terms, for dragons can live for up to 3,000 years. This would place the story in the 4th century AD, a Chinese form of the Dark Ages, when there was no dynasty. It was the period of Chinese history known as the Sixteen Kingdoms, a time for which little is known allowing even more historical gaps to be filled by the author.  We enter the story in 325AD. The powerful Han Dynasty is a distant memory and tribes of barbarian soldiers fight over what was once the Empire. These are dangerous times, but Kai who is now 465 years old (a mere teenager in dragon years) is bored and leaves the safe dragon haven. He begins a search for the predestined person who is to be the next dragonkeeper. He finds his way to a Buddhist novice named Tao who is quite certain he is not the one; he has no interest in caring for a difficult dragon. But, Kai is drawn to Tao and the young man must learn to listen to the voice within him and journey with Kai. Their relationship is slow to begin but eventually they bond and a new phase in Kai's long life begins. You can download a sample chapter below.

The Dragonkeeper series is brilliant. I'm sure that it will captivate many generations of young readers. The stories will appeal to boys and girls alike and will engage them from the start. One suspects that now Carole Wilkinson has made the decision to turn a trilogy into at least four books, that there might be more as the possible future storylines would seem almost endless.


Terrie said...

I had heard of this series but now I really must get my hands on it... looking forward to a great read. Thanks for reminding me about this series!

Anonymous said...

yeah i was copying all this information for a book review and its great. thanks for the help but next time make a review of dragon dawn, even if it is not as good as the others.

i loved the whole series and i thank pre uni for introducing it to me

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Terrie. And yes, Anonymous 'Dragon Dawn', which is the Prequel to the Dragonkeeper trilogy, is also a great book.