A political marriage has been arranged between 16-year-old Princess Taoshira (Tashi) of the Blue Crescent Islands and 18-year-old Prince Ramil (Ram) of the country of Gerfal. They’re separated by a few hundred miles, a couple of other countries in between theirs, and a world of cultural differences. Both Tashi and Ram are completely appalled by the idea of the match, and it doesn’t get any better when they meet up, as Tashi’s government sends her to Gerfal to meet and wed Ram. But their countries need an alliance to fight against an aggressive and brutal warlord, Fergox Spearthrower of Holt (one of those in-between countries), and the marriage is needed, in the views of their rulers, to cement their alliance.
Tashi, frightened, takes refuge in stiff formality; Ram gets wasted and does his best to put Tashi off with his rude and uncouth behavior. They’re off on a horse ride that Ram’s father, the king of Gerfal, pushed them into when things go from awful to horrible: Tashi and Ram are kidnapped by a tough circus troupe working for Fergox, and thrown in a snow tiger’s cage for safekeeping and hiding (the tiger, luckily, is chained so it can’t reach them). Tashi and Ram have a series of trials, mishaps and adventures from that point on, including trials of Tashi’s previously unquestioned faith in her Goddess.
Dragonfly (2009) is a fast-paced and fun ride, and Tashi and Ram both have nice character development arcs, and a squeaky-clean romance gradually develops between them. Both have limitations in their worldviews and immaturities that they need to overcome. Ram’s father, King Lagan, has more depth than I would have expected. The villains of the story, Fergox and his sister, the Inkar Yellowtooth, are unmitigated villains, but do bring some personality to the tale.
Published before the push for more racial and cultural sensitivity and inclusiveness in recent years, Dragonfly stumbles a little in that regard. In particular, I was annoyed by an unshakeable feeling that the author originally intended Tashi’s country and culture to be Japanese-like, but thought better of it for cultural appropriation reasons, and changed Tashi to have blonde hair … but without changing much about her country’s culture. So much about the Blue Crescent Islands echoes Japan: their culture is deeply formal, one of their arts is paper-folding laden with symbolism (Tashi’s symbol is the dragonfly), the upper classes wear ornate embroidered robes and white face paint, the map of the Blue Crescent Islands has a distinct resemblance to Japan. Even Tashi’s full name, Taoshira, sounds Japanese. Combining that with a fair-haired population creates an odd feeling of disconnect, if not actual discomfort.
Dragonfly is somewhat simplistic as far as characterization and writing style go. On the other hand, there’s also a fair amount of warfare, violent sword-fighting, and death in the plot. It’s not too gruesome, but it’s not handwaved either. I think I would have adored this fantasy and light romance when I was about thirteen years old, but for older readers who prefer more complex YA fantasy, Dragonfly may fall a little flat. On balance, Dragonfly seems like it would appeal most to young readers in the 10-15 age range, and I’d recommend it fairly enthusiastically for fantasy readers in that age group.