Janet Lee Carey turns a conventional fantasy narrative completely on its head in her novel Dragonswood but she does it so subtly that I didn’t even notice what was going on until three-quarters of the way through the book. See if you can spot what she does before I reveal it in this review.
In Dragonswood, Ms. Carey returns to the world of Wilde Island she created in her wonderful 2007 novel Dragon’s Keep. Wilde Island exists alongside historical England of the late tenth, early 11th century. It’s a far-away lonely place that reminded me of what I enjoyed most about Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books. Lots of alternate reality with some magic and dragons. Dragonswood is a companion novel, not a sequel, so there’s no need to read the two books in any particular order though Dragon’s Keep takes place a generation and a half before Dragonswood does.
Dragonswood is the story of Tess, the daughter of an abusive village blacksmith who must flee her home and all she knows after she is accused of witchcraft. While Tess is not a witch, nor are the two friends who are also accused, Tess knows she has some kind of power others do not. Sometimes when she stares into a fire, she see visions of the future.
After the three young women escape the witch-hunters disguised as lepers, they take refuge in Dragonswood, a walled reserve set aside for the few remaining dragons on Wilde Island. There they meet Garth, the woodsman who is in charge of keeping the king’s hunting lodge while the king is away on Crusade.
The novel turns from adventure fantasy to romance as Tess finds Garth to be exactly the sort of man she wants to marry, the sort of man she thought did not exist. When Garth is taken prisoner by the absent King’s men, she heads south in an attempt to rescue him, in spite of the voices she hears telling her to go north towards the land of fey.
Eventually, the reader knows that Tess is half-fey, the blacksmith was not her father after all. We soon discover that the rest of the novel will be about how Tess tries to rescue Garth, whom we now know to be a prince, from the tower where he has been imprisoned.
So the fairy princess must rescue the human man from the tower prison.
Nicely done, Ms. Carey, inverting the conventional fairy tale plot without letting your reader know what you’re up to at all. This way, Ms. Carey makes a strong point about gender roles without writing a book that is making a point about gender roles.
While it is something of a doorstop at just over 500 pages, and the romance plot will probably appeal more to young readers than it did to me, I enjoyed Dragonswood nearly as much as I did Dragon’s Keep. I have two boys in one of my classes who just finished Dragon’s Keep. They’ll be pleased to know that I liked the “sequel.” Both want more stories from Wilde Island.
Back when I ran my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. I did an interview with Janet Lee Carey. She was one of the more gracious authors I worked with, though all were very nice except for one who put me off of author interviews completely. I’ve been moving my old reviews over to this new blog since I started, so I think I’ll spend the next few days migrating my reviews of Ms. Carey’s books and the interview with her over here. I only ever interviewed authors whose books I really liked, so maybe I can get Ms. Carey one or two more readers. I think she’s very good.