I read these books as light relief after the slog that was Moby Dick. Also, my pre-teen was reading them and I like to keep an eye on what my children are reading.
There are 7 books in the series. The main character, David, lodges with a woman who makes clay dragons to sell at a market stall. The reader soon finds out that some of these dragons have magical properties, although it takes David longer to believe this. The first book is set in an English village (or Massachusets if you believe the American edition) but they quickly incorporate other locations in the British Isles and further afield.
I bought the first book, The Fire Within, for my son when we were in England three and a half years ago. When he and I enjoyed that one I ordered the second, Ice Fire. We borrowed the rest of the books from the library. The first two books are mostly realistic but with a strong vein of fantasy running through. I have never been a lodger myself but I recognised many aspects of his setting – a local library and gardens, local craft market, English weather, and being a student with lectures and essays never the main focus of your life but always somewhere on the periphery. The author says that David is based on himself when he was younger, and you can see this from his writing at this point.
I became uncomfortable with the books from the second book onwards. My main concern was with the plots. I like my novels to be well planned. I like stories with plenty of twists, and my ideal novel is one that I finish and want to go straight back to the start so I can look for all the clues, hints and foreshadowing that I missed the first time. In this series there were new elements introduced in each book (polar bears, witches, aliens, parallel universes etc.) but none of them seemed to fit in with what had come before. This becomes particularly clear in the interview at the back of The Fire Ascending, the last book in the series. Chris D’Lacey had not planned the books as a series of seven. He said that he started writing each book with an idea of how it ended, but otherwise it grew ‘organically’.
My next concern was with the audience. Liz, David’s landlady, has a daughter called Lucy who is 11 years old in the first book. Her character might not behave quite as parents experience their 11 year olds behaving, but she is written quite well. One might think, from this character and from the subject matter of the story, that the books are aimed at children around this age. As I said, my son and I enjoyed the first book. The second book is far darker than the first, and I worried that some of the imagery would scare him. I started to wonder if the books were not suitable for a child his age.
I am not a prude, but I was unhappy with David’s girlfriend of the first book being pushed aside, and the introduction of the beguiling goth ‘Zanna’. D’Lacey never misses an opportunity to tell us how beautiful and attractive Zanna is. We are treated to more of the same when David goes to a publishing company staffed by young, attractive females. And after David and Zanna both go to the Arctic, we are told at the end of Fire Star that she is pregnant with his child. There is no description of sex, admittedly, but the attention to physical characteristics and sexual attraction seems to me to fit better in a young adult book. It might, were the book written for young adults. My teen, for one, is not in the slightest bit interested in these books, so I am unsure who the books are written for.
Yet again, the interview at the end of the last book is revealing. The name ‘Zanna’ was taken from a real woman who came to a book signing after D’Lacey had written the first book. I am sorry to say that David’s attention to Zanna throughout the rest of the series seems to me like a middle aged man incorporating his own fantasy woman into his books.
Many of the characters in the books are not given full attention, and particularly the women. After the second book Lucy seems to fade into the background. Suddenly five years seem to have passed and she emerges as a teenager. The teenage Lucy is barely given any character at all, simply sketched out. She has a crush on one of the other characters and nothing D’Lacey wrote explained to me why this would be so. He is telling us that’s the way she feels, rather than showing us. David also has a daughter who, for most of the last four books, is five years old. She is meant to be a key plot point but she is almost forgotten most of the time. When we do read about her she doesn’t behave like any five year olds I know, apart from maybe her habit of drawing pictures whenever she can. The gorgeous Zanna is supposed to be a great mother, but I can’t see much evidence of that apart from the fact that she lives with her daughter and tries to look after her. David, in contrast, is very much an absent parent for most of the last books.
I mentioned the American editions above and I found the editing infuriating. I did not understand why Scrubbley, which is clearly an English village and described as such, had to be translated to a US location in any case. The part where they drive from Scrubbley (MA) to Cambridge (MA) via Birmingham (AL?) is ludicrous. In the English edition of the second book David also travels from Scrubbley to London on the train to see his publisher. I wonder how the American edition dealt with that train journey, or another journey in Fire Star when he travelled to a remote Scottish island to find Brother Vincent.
My 11 year old enjoyed the whole series but I don’t recommend these books. I enjoyed the magic involving dragons and polar bears and I like the cover art. Many of the devices D’Lacey introduces are familiar to readers of fantasy or sci fi. I am happy to read about aliens or parallel universes but I think other authors are more skillful in the way they turn these ideas into stories. For children’s fantasy I prefer the books I grew up with, by authors like Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Le Guin, plus Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels which are both cleverly written and amusing.
If you want to try D’Lacey’s books maybe the best advice is what a friend once told me about the film Highlander: enjoy the first one but don’t bother with any of the others.