One-chapter book reviews: Merlin's Dragon: Ultimate Magic, chapter four

You can't judge a book by its cover, they say, but most people do. Because this is America, by God, and there has got to be a better way to judge a book than to actually read it. That's why we're bringing you One-Chapter Book Reviews, where we'll pick one random chapter from the random books PR firms send to our office and evaluate them on that basis. Today we're tackling Merlin's Dragon: Ultimate Magic, by T.A. Barron, who, according to PR materials, quit his day job to write fiction for young adults. If chapter four is any indication, he probably shouldn't have.

In all fairness, you can't really expect books for young adults to be James Joyce or anything -- but that doesn't mean they can't be decently written. The Narnia series, by C.S. Lewis, for example, comprised brilliant and beautiful works of literature that still hold up when you read them years later, and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are said more about the glory and agony of childhood than most books could accomplish in 1,000 times that many words.

Barron, on the other hand, accomplishes little but a possible setup for a morality lesson in the fourth chapter of Merlin's Dragon. Narrated from the perspective of, yep, a dragon, the chapter centers around some kind of battle and introduces at least one colorful stock character in the form of a tough, "feisty" broad who speaks in dialect and says things like "Never do that again, ye scaly upstart!" (exclamation point Barron's). What occupies the dragon's attention, though, is a contraption possessed by the opposing army:

Basilgarrad turned his head toward the dark tower in the center of the fighting -- the only flamelon contraption he hadn't yet destroyed. Was it perhaps some sort of catapult? ... Truth was, the structure didn't look dangerous. Nothing about its actual appearance gave any genuine cause for alarm. It merely smelled somehow dangerous.

How's this for a genuine cause for alarm: It's a big-ass catapult-looking thing on a battlefield. It's probably safe to assume it's somehow dangerous. The tower factors in again later, at the end of the chapter, after the dragon has an internal dialogue wherein he grows increasingly angry about something, though it's hard to understand exactly what, given the lack of context. But this paragraph, the last one before the one that concludes the chapter, seems to have significance:

He focused his gaze on the strange, unmanned tower. He'd quickly destroy it -- and then do the same to the rest of his enemies. Because, out of sheer anger and vengeance, that was what he wanted to do.

Now, granted, I don't know what happens before this or what happens next, but the connotations of Barron's word choices here seem oddly contradictory. Because destroying a menacing enemy object and killing his enemies in the midst of a battle seems like a reasonable thing to do. But the phrase "out of sheer anger and vengeance" indicates impetuousness, irrationality, meanness -- a lack of character, and the implication that the actions will not turn out well.

It's a seeming contradiction that indicates a deeper problem I'm going to go ahead and attribute to the rest of the novel: Barron's lack of control over his writing, his use of prose in a strictly denotative manner, ignoring their connotative potential. A writer who underestimates his audience: children, and their capacity to perceive more than just what is right in front of them.

On the other hand, the cover's pretty badass.

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte