More often than I’d like to count, I’ll read a juvenile or YA fantasy book that features a “less-than-perfect” hero or heroine (more often the heroine), and by the book’s end, whatever it was that made them different has been “fixed”. For example, in The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, an overweight heroine becomes svelte by the end of the story, and as such she is more qualified to succeed. And so it is with pleasure whenever I discover a book wherein the main character has a flaw, and still has said flaw in the final pages. One such book is Merrie Haskell’s involving tale, Handbook for Dragon Slayers.
Princess Matilda, or simply Tilda, longs for a quiet, monastic life where she can read and copy books, and one day write her own, in peace. But being the heir to a small principality, such peace is a luxury. When a neighboring cousin takes Tilda’s mother hostage, and attempts to do the same to Tilda (it doesn’t last), she sees this as a chance to give up her responsibilities and the life she was born to, and run away. Having been born with a splayed foot which has earned her the fear and revulsion of her people (some believe she had been touched by the devil), Tilda believes Adder Brook will be better off without its lame princess. Her friends, her handmaiden Judith and squire-in-training Parz don’t know of Tilda’s plans to disappear, and engage her in a distracting quest to slay a dragon and restore Parz’s reputation. Tilda resolves to write a book about slaying dragons, but along the way learns much more than she bargained for.
Tilda’s foot is a handicap, one that often slows her down on her journey. And though a sisterhood of nuns treats her, her problem does not simply go away. I appreciated this about Haskell’s writing. Tilda did have to undergo a change, but one for her personality, an acceptance of her role in the community, her responsibility to her home and her people. Tilda needed to learn that not all dragons are evil and need destroying. In a magical twist late in the story, Tilda learns intimately what it means to be a dragon, and this knowledge changes her. This is the kind of transformation that needed to occur for Tilda to become a hero, not having her foot magically fixed.
Tilda’s attitude is informed by many things, her handicap being just one influence. She feels pressure from her role as princess of Adder Brook, and as such she has learned to internalize her feelings. While those around her (except those who know her best like Judith) might see a stuck-up noble, Tilda herself feels as if she must keep a stiff upper lip, as it were. Couple this with her splayed foot, and Tilda is convinced that the people of Adder Brook despise her. “I could see people watching me, watching my foot and the way I walked.” When Tilda learns there are rumors swirling about her (“One servant, a girl named Roswitha, made the sign against the evil eye as I passed.”), she tries to bury it deep inside, and “pretend[s] not to see.”
Kirkus Reviews calls Handbook for Dragon Slayers “A delightful middle-grade fantasy” which “falters only in its excess of exuberance.” The review praises Tilda as a “splendid heroine: Wry, intelligent, sensitive and stronger than she thinks.” Booklist calls it an “accessible medieval fantasy” which “features three likable young people, several imaginatively depicted magical animals, and a couple of dastardly villains.” Handbook for Dragon Slayers was the Schneider Family Book Award winner for middle school in 2014.
Author Merrie Haskell has three times dipped her toe into the rich riverbed of fairy tales for her stories. Her debut book, The Princess Curse and her most recent title The Castle Behind Thorns (a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty”) were both well received, the latter earning two starred reviews. Fans of Ms. Haskell’s writing could easily transition into the works of Gail Carson Levine, which include the Newbery honor book Ella Enchanted. Master storyteller Jane Yolen also writes splendid fairy tale reimaginings such as Snow in Summer and Curse of the Thirteenth Fey. For readers more interested in the masculine side of the fairy story, Christopher Healy has written a charming and hilarious series beginning with A Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, which features the male counterparts to famous female characters.
Haskell, Merrie. Handbook for Dragon Slayers. New York: Harper, 2013. ISBN: 9780062008169