Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dragons in Our Midst

Titles:  Raising Dragons; The Candlestone; Circles of Seven; Tears of a Dragon

Author:  Bryan Davis

Rating:  *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")
             Recommended with Reservations

Audience:  Middle-schoolers

If I could give two grades, this series by Bryan Davis would get a "C" for kids who read it (many of them seem to love it) and a "D/F" for parents who try to read it.  I slogged through the first 2 books, and while I found nothing spiritually troubling in it, I found nothing endearing or entertaining, either.

Keeping in mind that this was his first published fantasy effort, and he works with a second tier publishing house (AMG Publishers/Living Ink Books), I felt major drawbacks included clunky prose, convoluted plots, weak science, and finally, artificial Christianity.  As you can see, it barely passed.

The basic gist of the series is that from King Arthur days, a few dragons have gone undetected by morphing into long-lived human beings.  After inter-marrying with true humans, a small race of part-dragon/part-human teenagers exist in our present age.  Some descendants of knights also exist who wish to slay the dragons and half-breeds, not willing to believe that these current dragon children (Billy Bannister and Bonnie Silver) are "good."

One of the greatest challenges an author faces is to "show" rather than "tell" the reader their story.  Authors that tell stories predictably with unnecessary details insult the intelligence of the reader.  This might be fine for immature audiences, but it won't hold weight with critical thinkers.

For example, when his characters engage in battle, Davis is too tempted to work out every detail of each conflict.  In doing this, he makes the conflict less believable.  Life happens too fast for this type of description.  Consider doing something as simple as going to the store.  In telling a story you wouldn't bother with every little detail about how you got to the store, unless something truly remarkable happened along the way.  Instead you would simply state "when we arrived at the store...."

Here's another example of the same thing from the second book:

"Billy fastened the next to the last button on his lined Washington Redskins jacket.  The bottom button was missing, lost in his backyard during a Thanksgiving Day football romp."

Who cares?!  The lost button doesn't show up in the rest of the book (unless it's going to show up in book 3 or 4) so it doesn't further the plot!  Who cares if the jacket is lined?  Who cares if it's a Washington Redskins jacket?

At the risk of committing the same freshman error as Davis, let me add one more:

"Billy's mom squatted in her navy blue corduroys and red windbreaker to retie the laces of her hiking boot."

Who cares?!  This sentence does not advance the plot or develop the character.  Mr. Davis has misplaced his details in insignificant passages, while leaving other areas lacking for real explanation.  If you've read too many of the classics, you know that description has its place and a truly well-written book has no extra words that do not impart significant meaning.  An author must know when to be succinct and when to be beautifully descriptive.

I won't list the bad metaphors and awkward similes.  This reviewer may not be very succinct either, but let me try to touch on some other aspects of the series.

In attempting to explain the physics of his second book, The Candlestone, Davis has created more holes than a screen door on a submarine!  Apparently dragons use light energy via photoreceptors to extend their lives.  The candlestone is to dragons what kryptonite is to Superman.  Somehow, multiple characters land within the candlestone.

"Excalibur transformed him into light energy and the candlestone absorbed his fractured particles into itself."

Now characters like Bonnie must disassociate themselves to enter the candlestone, eliminate the "bad guys" and retrieve the "good guys."  All this will happen in a secret mountain lair/lab not far from the Pharmacy School of the University of Montana!  (Go Griz!)

"We've succeeded in sending people into the candlestone, but only for a couple of minutes, max.  They're not able to stay long because they don't have the same makeup as you do.  They have no natural light receptors so they go into the stone out of phase.  We believe you can go in and attach yourself to your mother and pull her out."

(Basically, Bryan, since you don't have the science, just throw out a few vague technical terms.)

I could give more examples, but you get the idea.  This is why serious science fiction writers end up creating a new worlds for their stories (Narnia, Middle-earth, Mars).  Earth's natural laws don't lend themselves to credible science fiction.

In general I'd have to say Davis may be trying to do too much with this series.  Is it a King Arthur story?  A dragon story?  A time travel story?  Or a fantastic physics experiment that defies explanation?  Who am I to criticize?  I'm sure I'm trying to do too much with this blog!

The Christianity presented is predictable, one-dimensional.  Bonnie is the committed Christian, Billy the curious seeker.  Bonnie speaks and writes like a 19th century school marm.  Of her Christianity, the author states:  "Her prayer went on and on, her eloquence natural and free flowing, the product of her dragon-influenced mind and maturity."
Some Christian parents will be relieved that scriptures are quoted and hymns are sung.  Others will find the passages stilted and saccharine.

Violence enters the plot as you would expect in an epic battle of good versus evil.  I found it to be surprisingly graphic in the first book:  "Whoever those burglars were, they weren't very bright.  I clubbed the first one with a baseball bat....  The second one couldn't see what happened so I just bashed her, too."  Hard to believe a young teen could appear that remorseless, unless you're reading the Hunger Games.

There is a serious theme presented of science gone awry, the ethical dilemma of de-valuing people as science experiments.  This also is spoon-fed to us by Davis.  Readers who have encountered Frankenstein or Fahrenheit 451 will not be impressed.

Is there any problem with Davis creating "good" dragons when Western literature traditionally uses them to personify Satan or evil?  Davis addresses this in his poetic prologue to Raising Dragons, believing dragons have received bad press down through the ages.  "Surely using a dragon to personify evil is symbolic, for if they existed, God created them just as he did all other creatures."  I'm tempted to say a fictional, manmade myth can only reflect the morality of its human creator.  Based on such a definition, we could also argue for "good" witches and "good" vampires.  This must be one of those idols to which Paul refers in I Corinthians 8.  In that convicting chapter I'm reminded that if any of us thinks we know something, we may actually know nothing yet as we ought to.  My "theology" of good dragons is evolving and I'll be reading more in the "genre," including How to Train Your Dragon this summer with my kids!

Davis has continued to expand his Billy and Bonnie dragon stories in such series as Oracles of Fire and Children of the Bard.  A third series, Dragons of Starlight, is reviewed on Amazon as an Exodus allegory.  It's enlightening to read some of the reviews of Davis' books on Amazon.  He clearly strikes a chord with certain audiences (fantasy fans, Christian homeschoolers), but critical reviews are less charitable, and while sales don't mean everything, he has certainly not impressed the masses to reach best-seller status.

In sum, I'd have to say, if you have a middle-schooler who devours fantasy, Bryan Davis is a resource who can keep them busy for awhile.  If you want to do more than keep them busy, you may want to start Lord of the Rings.

On the other hand:  "Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies."  I Corinthians 8:1

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