Dragons of Darkness
by Antonia Michaelis
Translated by Anthea Bell
Everyone loves Arne. His smile, his good heart, and his easy way with people make him popular. So when Arne disappears in Nepal, everyone is devastated.
No one is more devastated than Arne's 14-year-old younger brother Christopher. Although Christopher is nothing like Arne, and has always been in Arne's shadow, Christopher loves and adores his older brother. Paralyzed and helpless at the disappearance, Christopher can do nothing but look at a book about Nepal and wish that he could do something to help his brother.
And then, something happens. Transported through the book to Nepal, Christopher sets off on a quest to save his brother. But he discovers a Nepal on the brink of war between factions, and beset by color dragons who drain the land they attack of all color and value. Christopher meets an invisible boy named Jumar -- the heir to the throne of Nepal -- and the two of them set out to do what they can for the country, and maybe save Arne as well.
Dragons of Darkness is a fascinating blend of modern realistic and fantastic elements. At first, the juxtaposition of these disparate elements seems a little odd, but Antonia Michaelis' beautiful writing soon immerses the reader in her world.
From the same author and translator as Tiger Moon, it's natural to compare it to that book. Yet Dragons of Darkness is very different from Tiger Moon, although it touches on some of the same themes: the power of story and our ability to write our own destiny.
Like Tiger Moon, the writing in Dragons of Darkness is evocative, but it has a more modern feel to it, appropriate to the setting, than Tiger Moon's fairy-tale feel. It's also a grittier book, one in which the horrors of war are depicted brutally, and innocent people caught between two armies are the ones who suffer the most.
The Nepal in this book is clearly a fictional Nepal, but one that resembles some elements of recent Nepalese history: Maoist insurgents in the mountains are fighting to overthrow the king. Although Michaelis does include an "Afterword: For Political and Geographical Correctness" which gives some information about what's real and what isn't in this book, the afterword is short and sketchy, and written in a style as if it's part of the story. The story bears enough resemblance to reality, that I wish Michaelis had included a clearer and more detailed explanation of the facts. It was enough, however, to make me curious to know the truth and read more about Nepal. I hope that teens who read this book will be equally inspired. Each section of the book is also preceded by a page of information about the ecological niche that they are traveling through, another feature that will hopefully inspire interest in the "real" Nepal.
The characters and the relationships between them are one of the best things about this book. Christopher and Jumar become, in a sense, spiritual twins, and yet has his own personal journey. As Christopher searches for his brother, he learns to step out of Arne's shadow and value himself, even as he discovers that he and Arne have more in common than he realized. The sheltered Jumar grows to understand and love the people of his country, even as he seeks to learn about his past. The third member of their group is a girl they meet among the Maoists: Niya, who joined the Maoists after her entire family was killed by the King's soldiers.
I was a little disappointed in the author's use of the "is it real or is it a dream" device for transporting Christopher to Nepal. Christopher finds himself in Nepal while looking at a picture in a book about the country, and later there are hints that he has actually been at his home in Germany the whole time. There are suggestions at the end that the journey may have been real, but it's ambiguous. I've never been a fan of this device; I like my fantastic journeys to be real, at least to the main characters. I always hated that the Wizard of Oz movie makes it seem like Dorothy's trip was just a dream. In the book, she really travels to Oz.
One thing that I loved is the lack of absolutes in terms of good and evil. Although the Maoists are fighting for equality and to overthrow a corrupt government, they also commit atrocities in the name of their cause, and in some ways seem no better than the government they are rebelling against.
Overall, Dragons of Darkness is a rich, layered story, with lovely writing, deep meaning, poignant characters, and a strong sense of place. It's dark in places, but it's also not without moments of humor. The writing style will most likely appeal to strong readers. I'd like to read it again; I think that it's the kind of story that will yield new discoveries on a second reading.
FTC required disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher to enable me to write this review. The Amazon.com links above are Amazon Associate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.