Review: Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell

Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Publisher: HarperCollins on May 28, 2013

Source: Library

Thirteen-year-old Princess Matilda, whose lame foot brings fear of the evil eye, has never given much thought to dragons, attending instead to her endless duties and wishing herself free of a princess’s responsibilities.

  

Merri Haskell’s standalone middle grade fantasy HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS is a sweet story about going on adventures that test your limits, appreciating the people who love you, and accepting yourself as you are. Oh, and dragon slaying. In a word: charming.

Princess Matilda, known as Tilda to her family and closest friends Judith and Parzival, is not all that a princess should be. She is shy and bookish, and worst of all? She’s clubfooted, a physical disability that her subjects see as a sign of ill favour. Fed up with the gawking, pointing, and being cast signs against the evil eye, Tilda abandons her role as their princess and runs off to slay dragons with her best friends…or maybe just write about it.

The setting of HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS is at first glance a fairly generic medieval European fantasy world, with references to holy wars, saints, and cloisters to add some atmosphere. But Haskell brings interest to this milieu with the addition of dragons that (allegedly)terrorize farmland and, perhaps more notably, her version of the Wild Hunt. Combine all that with some magical horses made from silver, copper, and gold, and this otherwise bland world has quite a bit of colour and fun to it.

As they venture towards the locations of various dragon sightings, the gang of course gets into a number of scrapes. Turns out that dragon slaying is a lot harder than a group of 13 and 14 year olds thought! Go figure. The journey/quest aspect of HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS feels fresh through Matilda’s eyes, as her concerns on the road are distinct from your typical fantasy heroine: Tilda’s clubfoot is quite painful, and it makes both riding and walking any considerable distance quite difficult. While Tilda’s suffering is palpable, she’s neither whiny nor a martyr; and yes, her disability is a big part of who she is and how she sees the world, but it’s not her. There’s more to Tilda than her clubfoot, and watching her come to that realization for herself was really satisfying.

Where this book really faltered for me was the overall plot, which felt quite unfocused and even chaotic at times. HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS is basically a series of episodes linked together to create a story, and unfortunately it wasn’t as cohesive as I would’ve liked. I think it would’ve been much stronger had Haskell cut one or two of these “episodes” so we could learn more about the rest of the group’s adventures. That said, younger readers might not care about that as much as I did. Personally I think that middle grade just isn’t for me — it feels very young to me, and the writing in most MG isn’t to my tastes. But for those of you who do enjoy MG or are looking for good disability representation, then this is a solid choice!

My first official pick for the Fantastically Diverse readathon, HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS is a fun story about a princess whose disability impacts her life, but it doesn’t define her. I’m excited to read more fantasy novels with good disability representation going forward.

Have you read any fantasy featuring disabled characters? What would you recommend to me? Let me know in the comments!

  • Sounds like nice MG, even if I feel too old

  • Hearing that it has a weak-ish plot makes me wary, but that said, I have a really hard time turning down anything that involves dragons in some way!

    • Dragons are the best, aren’t they? I really want them to come “back” and become a bigger trend so that we can get more dragon stories.

  • “Standalone” and “fantasy” are two of my favorite words! I’m not into Middle Grade anymore though, so I probably would have skipped this one even if you had liked it a lot. It sounds like the author had a little too much going on in this book? But seriously, anything with dragons involved DEMANDS to be a good novel. I’m glad you didn’t totally dislike it, Danya!

    Have a great weekend. =)

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!

    • OMG, I know right? If only this had been a YA novel, I’m sure I would’ve loved it that way. To me Tilda felt a bit too young for me to connect to her, and you’re right: there was definitely too much going on in terms of plot. Dragons are the best!

      Thanks, Alyssa! 🙂

  • Bookworm Brandee

    This sounds unique and sounded entertaining until I got to the mention of unfocused. I’m sorry the story didn’t flow well for you but it seems it wasn’t a total bust. I do think middle grade is hard to read as an adult for the most part. We’re used to a little more, um, sophistication maybe? I might pick it up sometime if only for the heroine and the dragons! 😀 Nice review, Danya.

    • This story had a ton of potential, and I do think that younger readers would love it….but you’re right, being an adult reader makes reading certain MG books difficult. The narration just feels really young! Haha. If you can snag a copy and you’re looking for a cute, sweet read with dragons, this is a solid choice!

  • Aww..Sad to hear it wasn’t the best..I remember you posted a pic of that first page..It was so hilarious 😛 As for fantasy novels with disabled characters, you must read Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis. It’s a standalone where both the main characters are disabled and there’s so much diversity!!

    • That first page was absolutely amazing, haha! I actually wish more of the book had been focused on Tilda’s writing of that Handbook that the intro was meant to mimic. Ooooh, I’ve heard great things about Otherbound, but I didn’t realize it was a standalone! Thanks for the rec, Uma! 🙂

  • I am trying to think of a MG book I have read and coming up blank. Sounds like a good premise, and I understand why you picked it up. Not sure it is for me though.

    • Have you read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of Her Own Making? That’s one MG that I think I’ll really love, since the writing is much more sophisticated than your standard MG novel.

      • I did read that one. Is it MG? I had it down as YA. I am guessing this is a fine line kind of thing.

  • Great review! AND DRAGONS YAAY I LOVE DRAGONS OH SO MUCH! Sorry to know you didn’t like it as much as you thought you would! Plus I love those graphics like fluffy, kid lit, etc. they are so cute!!!

    • Dragons are forever! You know, all this love for dragons in the comments is making me think that I should write a post all about dragons…hmmm. Ahhhh, thanks so much Prabhleen! I really like those graphics too, haha. 😀

  • MaddalenaSpaceandSorcery

    Interesting, although this is a little outside of my usual reading range, but I will keep it in mind when someone asks me for titles that might interest their kids. It’s a way to spread the love for speculative fiction, after all… 😉

    • Exactly! Gotta spread the love for SF/F to all ages and reading levels, haha. I think this story would make for a great read aloud/bed time story for kids on the older end of things, too.

  • This just sounds so adorable. I’m always amazed how much more diverse MG books tend to be than YA, which is fantastic and sad a little, in my opinion. But go MG authors for teaching about diversity from a young age. Tilda sounds like a great character and I already admire her from just reading your review. I don’t read MG, but honestly, I want to change that. Plus, I’m always looking for recs for my nieces and nephews.
    Lovely review, Danya!

    • You know, I haven’t really thought of that before but you’re so right Nick: MG books do tend to be more diverse than YA! What the hell’s up with that? I had so many great options to choose from when I was looking for a diverse MG and I felt like it was much harder with YA, since diversity in YA tends to focus on race and sexuality but doesn’t deal much with other types of diversity.

      OMG I bet your nieces and nephews would love this! It’s a really fun quest story. Thanks so much, Nick! 🙂

  • This sounds cute and definitely the kind of book I would have been reading when I was younger. I read very few MG books because I feel like I’m not the right target audience and it always feels a little immature. THat being said I do have one sat on my shelf so I may give it a read. This, though, I mean a MG fantasy which includes disabilities, that’s pretty damn exciting. I’m glad it’s a good read, sure it may be generic with it’s setting, but at least it does do some original things with the story.

    • I really want to love MG because honestly, the stories and diversity are really appealing to me…but I agree with you, Becky: I feel like I’m not the target audience and I don’t always jive with them. The only one I can think of that I loved is Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, which some people consider a YA book. Not every book needs to be earth-shatteringly original, and this one does a lot with positive disability representation so I was happy with that!

  • This book has such a lovely
    fairy-tale cover. It definitely caught my eye, though I don’t read MG books (for
    the same reason as you, most of the time they feel too young). There is
    something so alluring about princesses and dragons, I don’t know why there aren’t
    more books featuring them. This story sounds so lovely and charming. I like
    that Princess Matilda is not a stereotypical princess. I don’t think I would be
    picking it up, but I’ll keep it in mind for several middle graders in my life.

    • Yes, the cover art for this one is really nice! I will always, ALWAYS, be drawn in by stories with princesses and dragons, haha. Whenever I read one I end up comparing it to my all-time favourite, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, which is about a princess who’d rather be a dragon’s assistant instead. Such a great book!

      Tilda is a fantastic protagonist, and I’m really happy that I’ve read it so I can recommend it to younger people who come into the library I work at. 🙂

  • I’ve had my eye on this one for a while but I don’t think I realized the MC had a disability. No fantasy come to mind (well, the Thomas Covenent series by Stephen R. Donaldson but that’s…problematic), but I love Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan Space Opera Series and Miles has a number of physical challenges. I will definitely work this book in sometime soon!

    • Oh yeah, I’ve heard some…sketchy things about the Thomas Covenent series, haha. Thankfully this one had excellent representation! Lois McMaster Bujold was one of the first “established” sci-fi/fantasy authors I read, but I haven’t read the Vorkosigan series. Everyone seems to love it though, so I gotta get on that!

  • Greg Hill

    Ooh awesome cover! Nice to see disability in a middle grade, and Wild Hun too! Hmm… I don’t read a lot of MG these days but I was looking for a good MG fantasy I’d probably snatch this up!

    • This is definitely a good one to keep in mind if you’re looking to read or recommend MG, especially since it has such good representation. The Wild Hunt is one of my favourite aspects of fae lore, I wish it was more prevalent in stories about them!

  • Tilda sounds amazing — and no, I haven’t read a book with a disabled character before. I like that the author doesn’t define her by her disability — it’s so vital for this age group (or any) to understand that.

    • Tilda is a fantastic protagonist! She’s actually kind of a badass in her own way, which I think is awesome because as you said, it shows that she’s not defined by her disability,

  • I like the sound of the premise with Haskell’s version of the Wild Hunt but the format sounds like it took some of the joy out of it. I’m a fan of MG so I may keep this in mind for a library read. Thanks for the lovely review, Danya 🙂

    • That’s a perfect way to describe it, Kim! Great premise, shaky execution. It’s definitely worth a read for the disability rep though, you should check your library for it if you’re in the mood for a sweet MG. 🙂

  • Lynn Williams

    Mmm, MG probably isn’t for me – which is a shame because that cover is absolutely awesome!
    Lynn 😀

  • Aw! This looks like a lot of fun and I cannot wait for my daughter to be old enough to read stuff like this! Actually I can…. I don’t want her to grow up in a hurry! 3 is enough for now! 🙂 But I can’t help but look forward to the things that excite me and hopefully she will be into books and reading AAAAlllllmost as much as I was.

    This sounds like a wonderful mix of fantasy and diversity and I was very pleased to see that there seemed like there was some character growth there.

    Lovely review!

  • I haven’t read any fantasy featuring disabled characters, and this looks like really cute Middle Grade Novel! A frustrating format can be hard to overlook though!! Awesome Review!!!

  • An interesting one 🙂 before I read this review, I didn’t know this disability existed! So that’s interesting. What do you mean by the tag fluffy though? 😀