I’ve been reading Jasper Fforde for years. I had no idea he wrote books for children until a few months ago, when my son picked up The Last Dragonslayer to read.
He didn’t get on with it. He found the language quite tricky and didn’t want to persevere with it, although he did say the story looked great but he would probably save it until he was a bit older. Having read it myself I tend to agree. Fforde’s writing for adults is fairly complex. He often drops you into his surreally imagined worlds as if you knew all about them already, leaving you to piece things together yourself, and this book is no exception. In fact, I’m not really sure why it’s being marketed for children, when it reads to me, exactly like his adult fiction.
The world of The Last Dragonslayer is one that is very similar to that of Thursday Next, the heroine of his best known adult fiction series. In the book, England is reimagined as a fantasy place that combines element of magic with more recognisably real things to create a rich, hybrid world.
Jennifer Strange is an orphan who works for an agency that supplies wizarding skills to people, based in Hereford. The boss, Kazam, disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and Jennifer is left to run the agency alone. In this world, the power of magic is dwindling and what little there is is kept in check by some strange alliance between wizards and dragons. Dragons have always been a menace, but under an ages old spell they coexist with people in a kind of national park whose boundaries are kept in place by a spell that will only be broken when the last dragon dies.
Jennifer receives word from one of the wizards that the last known dragon is due to die at the hands of the Last Dragon Slayer. When this happens, the land will be up for grabs and war may ensue. Jennifer is pulled into the centre of things when she finds out that she is, in fact, the last Dragon Slayer.
I enjoyed the book but it was hard going in places, and putting myself in the mindset of a child reader, you would really have to want to make this work to persevere. I recommend it for teens rather than younger children for this very reason, not because the material is unsuitable at all, just because it’s densely written and plotted and you need a fair amount of concentration to keep all the bits of the narrative together.
The book is funny and quirky and strange, and I liked it. I thought the end was not particularly satisfactory, but there are sequels which probably mean that it is less problematic if you read the next in the series and take the time to invest in what Fforde is doing and build the world of Jennifer Strange.