Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Publisher: HarperCollins on May 28, 2013
Thirteen-year-old Princess Matilda, whose lame foot brings fear of the evil eye, has never given much thought to dragons, attending instead to her endless duties and wishing herself free of a princess’s responsibilities.View Spoiler »
Merri Haskell’s standalone middle grade fantasy HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS is a sweet story about going on adventures that test your limits, appreciating the people who love you, and accepting yourself as you are. Oh, and dragon slaying. In a word: charming.
Princess Matilda, known as Tilda to her family and closest friends Judith and Parzival, is not all that a princess should be. She is shy and bookish, and worst of all? She’s clubfooted, a physical disability that her subjects see as a sign of ill favour. Fed up with the gawking, pointing, and being cast signs against the evil eye, Tilda abandons her role as their princess and runs off to slay dragons with her best friends…or maybe just write about it.
The setting of HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS is at first glance a fairly generic medieval European fantasy world, with references to holy wars, saints, and cloisters to add some atmosphere. But Haskell brings interest to this milieu with the addition of dragons that (allegedly)terrorize farmland and, perhaps more notably, her version of the Wild Hunt. Combine all that with some magical horses made from silver, copper, and gold, and this otherwise bland world has quite a bit of colour and fun to it.
As they venture towards the locations of various dragon sightings, the gang of course gets into a number of scrapes. Turns out that dragon slaying is a lot harder than a group of 13 and 14 year olds thought! Go figure. The journey/quest aspect of HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS feels fresh through Matilda’s eyes, as her concerns on the road are distinct from your typical fantasy heroine: Tilda’s clubfoot is quite painful, and it makes both riding and walking any considerable distance quite difficult. While Tilda’s suffering is palpable, she’s neither whiny nor a martyr; and yes, her disability is a big part of who she is and how she sees the world, but it’s not her. There’s more to Tilda than her clubfoot, and watching her come to that realization for herself was really satisfying.
Where this book really faltered for me was the overall plot, which felt quite unfocused and even chaotic at times. HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS is basically a series of episodes linked together to create a story, and unfortunately it wasn’t as cohesive as I would’ve liked. I think it would’ve been much stronger had Haskell cut one or two of these “episodes” so we could learn more about the rest of the group’s adventures. That said, younger readers might not care about that as much as I did. Personally I think that middle grade just isn’t for me — it feels very young to me, and the writing in most MG isn’t to my tastes. But for those of you who do enjoy MG or are looking for good disability representation, then this is a solid choice!
My first official pick for the Fantastically Diverse readathon, HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS is a fun story about a princess whose disability impacts her life, but it doesn’t define her. I’m excited to read more fantasy novels with good disability representation going forward.