Author: Pamela Dean
Details: (c) Pamela Dyer-Bennet 1989; Pub Firebird 2003; ISBN 0-14-250161-1
Verdict: The Whim of the Dragon is a thoroughly delightful story!
Reasons for reading it: It's the third in a trilogy and follows on from The Secret Country and The Hidden Land.
How it came into my hands: Present from rysmiel *grin*
I'm really taken with The Whim of the Dragon; I was ambivalent about The Secret Country and tended towards liking The Hidden Land in spite of its flaws, but tWotD is in a different class entirely. It has all the good points of all the earlier books and then some, and it just works as a whole.
The story is incredibly exciting; I was really on tenterhooks the whole time. There is a real sense of danger, and I was deeply emotionally engaged with the characters, and the plot is absolutely unguessable, and succeeds in the difficult trick of starting from a dire situation and building from there to an intense climax. The other thing that really contributes to the tension is the pace at which information is revealed, which is just perfect. The reader never has any more information than the characters, which gives a strong sense of actually being in the story.
At the same time, the sheer cleverness of how every detail is worked out was making me incredibly happy as I read it; it's slightly weird to feel simultaneously immersed in the story, and taking such aesthetic delight in the act of reading. But that feeling also works for the characters, I think; they're enjoying being in a real adventure and discovering how their magical world works, at the same time as being uncomfortable and scared and upset and all the other reactions that an actual adventure is likely to provoke. I mostly finished the book on the train yesterday and a stranger asked me what I was reading that was causing such reactions; she strongly implied that simply watching my expression as I was reading had convinced her to go and read the book!
Structure is the biggest weakness of the earlier two books in the series, whereas tWotD really succeeds on that level. It starts with a proper beginning, and builds up through a series of crises to a final resolution, and then opens out into an ending which is a proper ending but leaves plenty of room for speculation. It also works well with the rest of the trilogy, resolving much of what was left hanging by the earlier books. It's not a true stand-alone, but it is at least somewhat self-contained and would make sense without having read the earlier books. rysmiel, you wanted a comment on the ending; well, I really liked the twist, the way it's totally unexpected but once you've seen it it's obvious that nothing else would have fit the story.
There are a couple of things I could criticize, but they're pretty minor. I was pretty disappointed with the way that the children's Hidden Land doubles are just dropped. Not so much that they don't get a happy ending, but the fact that all the other characters just accept this. Earlier on in the book when this outcome seemed likely Laura voices horror at the possibility, yet when it actually happens no-one seems to care. Also I felt there were still pieces missing of the setup of the underlying system and the Hidden Land's relationship with both the Secret Country and our world. Perhaps that's ok, because the rules aren't apparent to the characters either, and it's not realistic to know everything about how the world works. The constant quotations got to the point where they were a bit annoying; in the earlier books they work well because they're sparser and part of the mystery anyway, but I think they're overdone in tWotD. That said, I really enjoyed the way the affairs of wizards is worked in, and there were a couple of others that made me smile.
Character comments: I think the story was a little unfair to Patrick. This is at least partly because I always used to sympathize with Patrick-type characters when I was a kid. The combination of life experience and a whole lot of children's fantasy which is unsympathetic to people like Patrick has made me less Patrick-ish than I was when I was his age, but even so. Ellen is still badly underdeveloped, which is only noticeable because all the other four are so vivid and memorable; in most other stories she'd be perfectly reasonable. I really enjoyed the way that the children actually do some growing and development in the course of the story, and it's particularly noticeable with Laura, as she starts out right on the border of being too young to be interesting. And I related so much to Ruth's dread of falling in love and the way she deals with it when it actually happens.
I would recommend tWotD highly; it really justifies the earlier two books. pthalogreen, you should really read this; it's about imaginary countries, and the responsibility that children have in an adult world, and knowing whether the people in your head are real, and Shakespeare.