Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen
Three years have elapsed since I first mentioned that Here, There Be Dragons was on my reading list. I was unable to expunge the spoileriffic twist from my brain in those three years, despite having earned my bachelor’s degree in that time frame. Thus, I must warn you, gentle reader: this review is full of spoilers. (Not saying “here, there be spoilers” is testing every cell in my terrible comedy body.) Normally, of course, a good story can function even while spoiled. I thoroughly enjoyed The Empire Strikes Back, even though existing after 1980 meant that I knew the major twist. The fact that this is an issue for Here, There Be Dragons should tell you something about its quality.
Here, There Be Dragons opens in 1917, with the mysterious murder of an Oxford professor. Before his death, he summoned three of his pupils to him—his protégé by correspondence, John, a soldier on leave, Charles, an editor at the Oxford University Press, and Jack, a rising Oxford student—and they meet over his corpse. The three retire to a nearby club to consider what must be done. They are intruded on by a mysterious man named Bert who bears something called the Imaginarium Geographica, which he claims John’s mentor protected. He also insists that John is the next protector of the book. Before they can protest, they are attacked by wendigo. Bert’s rescue whisks them off to the Archipelago of Dreams, where every fairy tale and fable exists. But they’re slowly being conquered by the shadowy Winter King, and only the Caretakers of the Imaginarium Geographica can stop him.
A few weeks ago, I went to see Now You See Me with my father, because we were helpless against the lure of a magician heist film. It’s a solidly enjoyable summer movie, the kind that evaporates off of you the same way heat shimmers off of the boiling lava-hot tarmac of the parking lot on your way out of the theater. (Seriously, y’all, it is so hot down South. So hot.) Now You See Me’s twist is a much larger foundational piece of the text than the twist found at the end of Here, There Be Dragons, but the question both texts pose to me remains the same: can the text still function as an enjoyable story with the twist revealed? For me, the jury is still out on Now You See Me, since I’m saving my movie-going pennies and shan’t be seeing it again until it comes out on DVD. But as for Here, There Be Dragons?
I’ve talked before about a trope that I really hate; it went unnamed in my review of the laughable Becoming Jane Eyre, but, for brevity’s sake, let’s call it Unimaginative Author Syndrome. Unimaginative Author Syndrome (or AUS) posits that a writer wrote entirely from life, lifting characters, situations, and, of course, feelings. (Especially if they are sexy feelings.)Film examples include Shakespeare in Love, Becoming Jane, and Molière. Not being a biography of Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, or J. R. R. Tolkien, Here, There Be Dragons doesn’t indulge in this as egregiously as the examples I just listed. But it still indulges in it, and I dislike the trope so much that every time the book nodded towards these authors’ works, all I could hear was someone screaming “DOESN’T THIS LOOK LIKE SOMETHING THAT YOU LOVE?” Knowing the twist, even if it doesn’t radically affect the story, made it much less enjoyable for me. For a different take on how this feels, here’s Patton Oswalt’s “At Midnight I Will Kill George Lucas with a Shovel.” (“Do you like ice cream? Well, here’s a bag of rock salt!”)
According to the Acknowledgments, Here, There Be Dragons began life as a outline for a film. (The Gotham Group has the rights to the books last I heard, so this and A Game of Thrones are both examples of unfilmable ideas becoming filmable.) It reminds me of some mid-level action/adventure film of the late eighties and early nineties, where all the moral complexity is sucked out like marrow from a bone. (…and now I’m hungry. Great.) I am all for classic stories of good versus evil—I adore The Lord of the Rings, c’mon—but I also enjoy at least a little moral complexity. In the world of the Archipelago of Dreams, morality is pretty cut and dried. There are some feints towards a little more political complexity (the native Goblins and Trolls chafe under the rule of Men), but Owen never follows through. There’s also an insinuation that the adventure here means that World War I can finally end, as both worlds are linked and our heroes have removed the catalyst. I’m pretty sure the catalyst was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. I mean, c’mon, even Captain America: The First Avenger had Cap fighting secret science Nazis, not actual Nazis, since that would imply that Captain America won World War II single-handedly, not, y’know, regular people. (I wonder how this series tackles World War II?)
On top of it all, there’s some bizarre logic at play here. Towards the end of the novel, we discover that a dragon held all the keys to defeating the Winter King the whole time, which would have saved the lone casualty of the final battle. (Yep. There’s one casualty.) Why did he withhold it? Owen could have nodded towards Tolkien’s Eagles with a simple “I just couldn’t be bothered”, but, instead, the dragon tells our heroes that it was something they had to do themselves. Motivations come and go, like night visitations, jumping from character to character. Milestones are hit because the plot demands it, not because the characters want to do them. A weird love triangle between pirate captain Aven, young Jack, and mysterious Bug occurs without ever feeling earned: Aven’s feelings switch without any particular reason, and watching Jack fume over Aven daring to be happy in the company of other men when he hasn’t mentioned that he’s into her is wildly uncomfortable.
Towards the end of the book, I realized I could only tell the three lead characters apart because Jack was the most annoying. Given my distant sympathy for C. S. Lewis, I felt rude just thinking that. When I want a light, fluffy fantasy adventure, I want it to hold together and make sense for as long as I read it, not make me practice my awful Alan Rickman impression. (“You have removed the catalyst…” “We’ve somehow retroactively saved Archduke Ferdinand? “YOU HAVE REMOVED THE CATALYST…”)
To end this on a positive note, I’d like to point out that, in reality, Lewis called Tolkien “Tollers”. It’s so cute I could just dissolve.
Bottom line: Unimaginative Author Syndrome and a thin plot that hits milestones because the plot demands it makes Here, There Be Dragons a lackluster adventure. Not recommended.
I rented this book from the public library.