N.D. Wilson is the author of the best-selling 100 Cupboards series, Notes from the Tilt-a-whirl, an Annie Dillard-esque theological thrill ride of a book, and is one of my favorite storytellers. There’s a flavor in his books that, if you’ve read the likes of Tolkien and Lewis and Dillard and MacDonald, you’ll find familiar—but it never feels like imitation. Wilson is developing a voice of his own, seasoned with just the right amount of beauty and truth and wonder. If you’re like me, and you’re a sucker for a good story about a kid on a perilous journey (inside and out), then get thee to the Rabbit Room and pick up The Dragon’s Tooth. Thank you, N.D. Wilson, for the stories.
I asked my friend Brian Wilhorn, an educator, book lover, and the brains behind the popular blog HelpReadersLoveReading.com, to read The Dragon’s Tooth and tell us what he thought. Check out his blog here, and follow him on Twitter here. Thanks, Brian, for the review!
Fantasy novels are sneaky. At first they whisk readers away to a foreign land with an honorable family determined to rule justly or where hardworking folk live under some tyrannical ruler. Next come the fantastical creatures, great flying beasts and beings with mystical powers. Then there’s the tense build to the epic battle where good triumphs over evil.
Readers know what to expect. Or rather I know what to expect. Rather, I think I know what to expect when it comes to fantasy novels. But just as I’m prepared to escape into a world where dragons breathe fire or fairies cast spells or inexperienced youngsters unexpectedly save the kingdom, that’s when fantasy novels get sneaky. Suddenly, amidst all the fires and spells and rescues, I find characters facing the very issues I thought I was escaping.
And I never see it coming.
Cyrus, Antigone, and Dan Smith live in and run the Archer Motel in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and it’s not much to look at. Paint peels, walkways rust, and thistles fill courtyard cracks. Twelve-year-old Cyrus filled the pool with tires. Thirteen-year-old Antigone avoids the motel’s cigarette graveyard. Twenty-going-on-thirty-year-old Dan runs the restaurant—one table, a toaster, and a waffle iron. Even the motel’s neon namesake, a once proud lady archer on a pole out front, now aims her bow carelessly towards the sky and away from her motel.
For two years the Smith kids have run the Archer by themselves, ever since their father died and their mother went into a coma; two years away from their home in California; two years in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin of all places.
Until the evening William Skelton—Billy Bones—arrives, demanding room 111, Cyrus’s room. Before the night is over, the walls have been torn off Dan’s room revealing mounds of important yellowed papers, the Archer is torched, Dan disappears, Billy Bones is dead, and Cyrus and Antigone are left with a pot-bellied lawyer talking about Acolytes, godchildren, heirs to an estate, and the Order of Brendan.
None of which makes any sense to Cy or Antigone. What is clear, however, is that heir brother has been added to the list of missing loved ones. The Archer has been added to the list of homes where they no longer live. People wanting to kill them are close. And all they have left is each other.
Which leads us back to the sneaky part. Just when I’m prepared to learn what an Acolyte is, or the amount of the inheritance, or the purpose of the Order of Brendan–just when I’m ready to continue this explosive adventure, in sneaks family, choices, and the very real possibility of dying. Soon.
Which brings us to choices. Cyrus and Antigone face the age-old choice of doing what is easy versus doing what is right. Turning away from the Order of Brendan would allow them to grieve for their family, remain safe, and stay together. But Dan has been given the Dragon’s Tooth, the Reaper’s Blade, with the power of death. Immortals can die and the dead can be raised with the tooth’s power. Enemies want it and will kill to get it. At one point Cyrus is offered his family in return for the tooth. Give the tooth (and all personal risk and responsibility) and save his family. Or keep the tooth (and the risk and responsibility toward a greater good) and possibly lose his loved ones. Easy? Or right?
And then there’s death. Dying. Billy Bones asks Cyrus, “How do you feel about Death?” (a question that can’t be asked, whether in real life or fanciful fiction, without contemplating the answer) to which Cyrus responds, “How do you think I feel about it? Death sucks. I don’t like it. How do you feel about it?”
But William Skelton’s reply is the opposite of Cy’s.
“People say you can’t run from Death. People lie. Running’s all you can do, kid. Run like Hell’s on your heels, because it is. And if you’re still running, well, then you’re still alive.”
Later he continues,
“You know what happens when you run too long? Death becomes . . . a friend, a companion on the road, a destination. Home. Your own bed. The place where your friends are waiting. You stop being afraid. You stop running.”
N. D. Wilson draws on mythology (Jason used the Dragon’s Tooth to fetch the Golden Fleece) like author Rick Riordan in the Percy Jackson series. He also weaves in history (Amelia Earhart, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ponce de León) like The 39 Clues. In The Dragon’s Tooth Wilson has built a solid base for the five book Ashtown Burials series. The book has its share of action, but it isn’t nonstop. Wilson takes the time necessary to properly flesh out Ashtown, the Order of Brendan, and its history. Readers will get frustrated along with Cyrus and Antigone every time they hear “I’ll explain more later,” but significant gaps are filled by the end, and sufficient gaps are left open for subsequent books.
And if you’ve made it this far, hopefully you won’t be surprised when the choices and issues faced by Cyrus and Antigone hit so close to home. When you read about Cyrus facing threats from a knife-wielding villain who’s killed kings and burned cities, you find yourself thinking about your own family. Would you have the courage to pick up a butter knife—a butter knife—and leap across the breakfast table to protect your sister like Cyrus? Could you confront utter humiliation in front of your adolescent peers and yet stay focused on your family instead of yourself, like Antigone? Could you?
What are my answers to the questions of immortality Cyrus and Antigone must face? When the dying hope to live and the dead are mourned, yet the immortal beg, “Kill me,” and people like William Skelton see Death as a friend and as freedom from a captor, what’s my reaction? How do I respond? Do I wish for immortality or do I welcome Death? If I welcome Death, what then is the captor in this world from which I’ll be freed? And absent of that captor, what freedom will I then experience? Will Death be like Cyrus initially thinks, to “be alone in a cold box, silent, breathless, bloodless, listening to the slow groping of tree roots,” or something more? How much more? Eternally more?
It’s questions like these that kept me reading, and will have me coming back for the rest of the story of the Ashtown Burials. And in the end I discovered that as the Smiths changed, so did I.
See what I mean? Sneaky.
Visit the website for Ashtown Burials here. And check out the book trailer below, featuring Super 8‘s Joel Courtney and directed by the author himself. All three books of the 100 Cupboards and The Dragon’s Tooth are available here in the Rabbit Room Store.