Wizards, dragons, orphans, and other familiar fantasy characters populate The Last Dragonslayer, the first novel in a series for young adults by British novelist Jasper Fforde. Just as his previous novels for adults, beginning with the comic adventure The Eyre Affair, have come loaded with sly meta-fictional asides, this novel plays with literary genre conventions that younger readers might find familiar from certain contemporary blockbusters in young adult fiction (Fforde also leaves room for social commentary on recession, environmental degradation, and greedy real estate moguls).
This time, however, the young orphan of indeterminate origin who will soon discover her mystical powers is a teenage girl. Jennifer Strange is the "acting manager" of Kazam Mystical Arts Management, an employment agency for down-on-their luck magicians from various disciplines. And do they ever need it: spells themselves have a success rate that hovers around a very unimpressive twenty-five percent; the houses of magic have dwindled from twenty to two; wizards cast spells to rewire houses and unclog drains; levitators work for the city moving illegally parked cars, while magic carpeteers transport organ donations and takeout food. Even Strange's boss, to whom she is allegedly apprenticed, has been unreachable for years, after a poorly executed spell sent him into unknown territory. Fittingly, the "pre-cogs" who work for him can predict either the place, or the time, he may reappear, but never both; thus, their leader remains in limbo.
Jennifer's main assets in her battle with disorder include her sidekick, the Quarkbeast, who only ?looks like an open knife drawer on legs" but is "actually a sweetie, and rarely, if ever, eats cats" and a rusty orange 1958 Volkswagen Beetle, in which she was found abandoned in front of the orphanage as a small child. But then she receives a new apprentice, Tiger Prawns, the seventh foundling (Jennifer being the sixth, and as she explains, "we didn't talk about the fifth").
At first, it seems the main tasks of the teen girl and her pre-teen assistant will be finding their leader and defending their livelihood against the likes of the king's Useless Brother, who undercuts Kazam's price quotes and thus steals their government contracts. But then Jennifer discovers in a twist surely unknown to fantasy readers that she is not like the others; she is the one, the only; the prophesied well, in this case, the Last Dragonslayer.
Her mission, it seems is, to kill the last dragon on noon on the designated day. This is unfortunate, because the dragon, Maltcassion, has much more to recommend his character than the monarch ordering his execution; the king is dismissive of Jennifer's gender, while being less honest, skillful, and grammatically astute than the teen girl to whom he condescends. Also, the minute the dragon dies, so the legend goes, his lands go up for grabs, and thus news of his impending demise sets off an unseemly rush, with citizens prematurely staking out their claims.
Jennifer finds herself a freshly minted celebrity, with offers of talk show appearance, cereal endorsements, sponsorships and marriage proposals (from suitors who graciously agree to take her more celebrated name). The familiar orphan-slays-dragon conceit is merely a useful scrim on which Fforde projects multi-layered humor, characters, and social commentary. Familiar prophecies aside, this debut augurs an engaging, witty and intelligent series to come.
Amy Benfer has worked as an editor and staff writer at Salon, Legal Affairs, and Paper magazine. Her reviews and features on books have appeared in Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, The Believer, Kirkus Reviews, and The New York Times Book Review.
Reviewer: Amy Benfer
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It looked set to become even hotter by the afternoon, just when the job was becoming more fiddly and needed extra concentration. But the fair weather brought at least one advantage: dry air makes magic work better and fly farther. Moisture has a moderating effect on the mystical arts. No sorcerer worth their sparkle ever did productive work in the rain—which probably accounts for why getting showers to start was once considered easy, but getting them to stop was nearly impossible.
We hadn’t been able to afford a company car for years, so the three sorcerers, the beast, and I were packed into my rust-and-orange-but-mostly-rust Volkswagen for the short journey from Hereford to Dinmore. Lady Mawgon had insisted on sitting in the passenger seat because "that’s how it will be," which meant that Wizard Moobin and the well-proportioned Full Price were in the back seat, with the Quarkbeast sitting between the two of them and panting in the heat. I was driving, which might have been unusual anywhere but here in the Kingdom of Hereford, which was unique in the Ununited Kingdoms for having driving tests based on maturity, not age. That explained why I’d had a license since I was thirteen, while some were still failing to make the grade at forty. It was lucky I could. Sorcerers are easily distracted, and letting them drive is about as safe as waving around a chain saw at full throttle in a crowded nightclub.
We had lots to talk about—the job we were driving to, the weather, experimental spells, King Snodd’s sometimes eccentric ways. But we didn’t. Price, Moobin, and Mawgon, despite being our best sorcerers, didn’t really get along. It wasn’t anything personal; sorcerers are just like that—temperamental, and apt to break out into petulant posturing that takes time and energy to smooth over. My job of running Kazam Mystical Arts Management was less about spells and enchantments, diplomacy and bureaucracy, than about babysitting. Working with those versed in the Mystical Arts was sometimes like trying to knit with wet spaghetti: just when you thought you’d gotten somewhere, it all came to pieces in your hands. But I didn’t really mind. Were they frustrating? Frequently. Were they boring? Never.
"I do wish you wouldn’t do that," said Lady Mawgon in an aggrieved tone as she shot a disapproving glance at Full Price. He was changing from a human to a walrus and then back again in slow, measured transformations. The Quarkbeast was staring at him strangely, and with each transformation there wafted an unpleasant smell of fish around the small car. It was good the windows were open. To Lady Mawgon, who in better days had once been sorceress to royalty, transforming within potential view of the public was the mark of the hopelessly ill-bred.
"Groof, groof," said Full Price, trying to speak while a walrus, which is never satisfactory. "I’m just tuning up," he added in an indignant fashion, once de-walrussed or re-humaned, depending on which way you looked at it. "Don’t tell me you don’t need to."
Wizard Moobin and I looked at Lady Mawgon, eager to know how she was tuning up. Moobin had prepared for the job by tinkering with the print of the Hereford Daily Eyestrain. He had filled in the crossword in the twenty minutes since we’d left Kazam. Not unusual in itself, since the Eyestrain’s crossword is seldom hard, except that he had used printed letters from elsewhere on the page and dragged them across using the power of his mind alone. The crossword was now complete and more or less correct—but it left an article on Queen Mimosa’s patronage of the Troll War Widows Fund looking a little disjointed.
"I am not required to answer your question," replied Lady Mawgon haughtily, "and what’s more, I detest the term tuning up. It’s quazafucating and always has been."
"Using the old language makes us sound archaic and out of touch," replied Price.
"It makes us sound as we are meant to be," replied Lady Mawgon, "of a noble calling."
Of a once noble calling, thought Moobin, inadvertently broadcasting his subconscious on an alpha so low, even I could sense it.
Lady Mawgon swiveled in her seat to glare at him. "Keep your thoughts to yourself, young man."
Moobin thought something to her but in high alpha, so only she could hear it. I don’t know what he thought, but Lady Mawgon said, "Well!" and stared out the side window in an aggrieved fashion.
I sighed. This was my life.
Of the forty-five sorcerers, movers, soothsayers, shifters, weather-mongers, carpeteers, and other assorted mystical artisans at Kazam, most were fully retired due to infirmity, insanity, or damage to the vital index fingers, either through accident or rheumatoid arthritis. Of these forty-five, thirteen were potentially capable of working, but only nine had current licenses—two carpeteers, a pair of pre-cogs, and most important, five sorcerers legally empowered to carry out Acts of Enchantment. Lady Mawgon was certainly the crabbiest and probably the most skilled. As with everyone else at Kazam, her powers had faded dramatically over the past three decades or so, but unlike everyone else, she’d not really come to terms with it. In her defense, she’d had farther to fall than the rest of them, but this wasn’t really an excuse. The Sisters Karamazov could also claim once-royal patronage, and they were nice as apricot pie. Mad as a knapsack of onions, but pleasant nonetheless.
I might have felt sorrier for Mawgon if she weren’t so difficult all the time. Her intimidating manner made me feel small and ill at ease, and she rarely if ever missed an opportunity to put me in my place. Since Mr. Zambini’s disappearance, she’d gotten worse, not better.
"Quark," said the Quarkbeast.
"Did we really have to bring the beast?" Full Price asked me.
"It jumped in the car when I opened the door."
The Quarkbeast yawned, revealing several rows of razor-sharp fangs. Despite his placid nature, the beast’s ferocious appearance almost guaranteed that no one ever completely shrugged off the possibility that he might try to take a chunk out of them when they weren’t looking. If the Quarkbeast was aware of this, it didn’t show. Indeed, he might have been so unaware that he wondered why people always ran away screaming.
"I would be failing in my duty as acting manager of Kazam," I said, in an attempt to direct the sorcerers away from grumpiness and more in the direction of teamwork, "if I didn’t mention how important this job is. Mr. Zambini always said that Kazam needed to adapt to survive, and if we get this right, we could possibly tap a lucrative market that we badly need."
"Humph!" said Lady Mawgon.
"We all need to be in tune and ready to hit the ground running," I added. "I told Mr. Digby we’d all be finished by six this evening."
They didn’t argue. I think they knew the score well enough. In silent answer, Lady Mawgon snapped her fingers, and the Volkswagen’s gearbox, which up until that moment had been making an expensive-sounding rumbling noise, suddenly fell silent. If Mawgon could replace gearbox bushings while the engine was running, she was tuned enough for all of them.
I knocked on the door of a red-brick house at the edge of the village, and a middle-aged man with a ruddy face answered.
"Mr. Digby? My name is Jennifer Strange of Kazam, acting manager for Mr. Zambini. We spoke on the phone."
He looked me up and down. "You seem a bit young to be running an agency."
"I’m sixteen," I said in a friendly manner.
"In two weeks I’ll be sixteen, yes."
"Then you’re actually fifteen?"
I thought for a moment."I’m in my sixteenth year."
Mr. Digby narrowed his eyes."Then shouldn’t you be in school or something?"
"Indentured servitude," I answered as brightly as I could, trying to sidestep the contempt that most free citizens have for people like me. As a foundling, I had been brought up by the Sisterhood, who’d sold me to Kazam four years before. I still had two years of unpaid work before I could even think of applying for the first level that would one day lead me, fourteen tiers of paperwork and bureaucracy later, to freedom.
"Indentured or not," replied Mr. Digby, "where’s Mr. Zambini?"
"He’s indisposed at present," I replied, attempting to sound as mature as I could. "I have temporarily assumed his responsibilities."
"‘Temporarily assumed his responsibilities’?" Mr. Digby repeated. He looked at the three sorcerers, who stood waiting at the car. "Why her and not one of you?"
"Bureaucracy is for little people," retorted Lady Mawgon in an imperious tone.
"I am too busy, and paperwork exacerbates my receding hair issues," said Full Price.
"We have complete confidence in Jennifer," added Wizard Moobin, who appreciated what I did perhaps more than most. "Foundlings mature quickly. May we get started?"
"Very well," replied Mr. Digby, after a long pause in which he looked at us all in turn with a should I cancel? sort of look. But he didn’t, and eventually went and fetched his hat and coat. "But we agreed you’d be finished by six, yes?"
I said that this was so, and he handed me his house keys. After taking a wide berth to avoid the Quarkbeast, he climbed into his car and drove away. It’s not a good idea to have civilians around when sorcery is afoot. Even the stoutest incantations carry redundant strands of spell that can cause havoc if allowed to settle on the general public. Nothing serious ever happened; it was mostly rapid nose hair growth, oinking like a pig, blue pee, that sort of stuff. It soon wore off, but it was bad for business.
"Right," I said to the sorcerers. "Over to you."
They looked at each other, then at the ordinary suburban house.
"I used to conjure up storms," said Lady Mawgon with a sigh.
"So could we all," replied Wizard Moobin.
"Quark," said the Quarkbeast.
None of the sorcerers had rewired a house by spell before, but by reconfiguring the root directory on the core spell language of ARAMAIC, it could be done with relative ease—as long as the three of them pooled their resources. It had been Mr. Zambini’s idea to move Kazam into the home improvement market. Charming moles out of gardens, resizing stuff for the self-storage industry, and finding lost things was easy work, but it didn’t pay well. Using magic to rewire a house, however, was quite different. Unlike electricians, we didn’t need to touch the house in order to do it. No mess, no problems, and all finished in under a day.
I stood by my Volkswagen to be near the car radiophone, the most reliable form of mobile communication we had these days. Any calls to the Kazam office would ring here. I wasn’t just Kazam’s manager; I was also the receptionist, booking clerk, and taxi service. I had to look after the forty-five sorcerers, deal with the shabby building that housed us all, and fill out the numerous forms that the Magical Powers (amended 1966) Act required when even the tiniest spell was undertaken. I did all this because (1) the Great Zambini couldn’t because he was missing, (2) I’d been part of Kazam since I was twelve and knew the Mystical Arts Management business inside out, and (3) no one else wanted to.