I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons by Peter S. Beagle fantasy book reviewsI’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons by Peter S. Beagle fantasy book reviewsI’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons by Peter S. Beagle

2023 was a good year for Peter Beagle fans (and who isn’t a Beagle fan?), with the publication of two retrospective short story collections — The Essential Peter S. Beagle Volumes I and II — and another book (The Way Home) combining two novellas, one a reprint and the other brand new. And now, just as the afterglow of all that may be starting to fade, 2024 says “hold my mead,” offering up a new novel, I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons, that, while it ends satisfactorily resolved, also teases the possibility of more stories set in this world with these characters. And thus there was much rejoicing.

Beagle sets his story in a medieval world, where dragons (which can be large but in most cases are small enough to hold in your arms or hand) are pests akin to termites or rats. Which of course necessitates the need for someone to take care of the problem, leading to our first of three main characters, Robert Thrax, a young man following in his deceased father’s footsteps as the local dragon exterminator/trapper in the kingdom of Bellemontagne. The problem is he hates his job, hates the killing and/or capturing of dragons, and when he can, he tries to let them go free or takes them home with him. What he really wants to do is be a prince’s valet and travel around the various kingdoms as they go off adventuring. As chance would have it, just one such adventuring prince, Prince Reginald of the large and aggressively expansionist Kingdom of Corvinia, has arrived with his own valet, who has been tasked by Reginald’s father to turn his not particularly brave or skilled at arms son “into a real man.” Something Reginald has no interest in, just as he doesn’t really want to be a prince, though his handsome appearance makes him the visual epitome of one. Those looks catch the attention of our last member of the main character trio — Princess Cerise, who has been wearily working her way through the seemingly endless queue of royal suitors. At least, when she hasn’t been sneaking off to teach herself how to read, a skill rare amongst royals.

The three come together when Cerise, horrified at the state of their castle in comparison to what Reginald must be used to, frantically asks her parents to refurbish the whole place, add on a few wings, etc. Noting that difficult to do in the single afternoon before Reginald is formally presented, her father agrees to at least rid their castle of the major dragon infestation and, in an absolutely wonderful scene, calls in person upon Robert to hire him. Doing so brings him to the attention of Reginald’s valet Morimain, who concocts a plan to have Robert teach Reginald enough of how to fight a large dragon so the three can go off and have Reginald (mostly Robert) kill one in the countryside, thus becoming the “hero” his father wishes him to be. As one would expect, the carefully crafted plan goes awry, and the three end up facing something and someone far more sinister and dangerous than a single wild dragon as the book melds together a quest/adventure storyline and a coming-of-age storyline with all three characters trying to find a way to be true to themselves despite the constraints placed upon them by their positions in society and (for Reginald and Cerise) their appearance.

All three characters are endearing, engaging, and moving in their desire to escape their proscribed lives into ones more naturally fitting. That’s particularly true with Robert, as his is the most heart-wrenching thanks to his revulsion at being directly involved in the slaughter of creatures he loves and respects, a slaughter that takes a continuous toll on him. A toll his best friend and assistant Ostvald can’t help but notice as they work in the castle:

it seemed to Ostvald — who was not introspective — that his friend was somehow poisoning himself as well as the creatures they had been hired to destroy … Robert’s face looked increasingly gray and bleak, gaunted as though will illness … The dragons they had driven out were sick and dying … [Robert] stroked each one softly, whispering, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” There were never tears in his eyes. But after a while, mask or no, Ostvald could not bear to look into them.

After several days of horrifying work, Robert and Ostvald ended up killing or capturing over seven thousand, taking the bodies and live ones to the Dragon Market, so to the guilt of the killing and caging gets added the guilt of profiting from it all. Robert had “briefly considered refusing to participate … [but couldn’t] abandon his due share of the sale, knowing the state of the Thrax home and the needs of his mother, brothers, and sisters. In the end, what did it matter? Dead was dead, and guilt grew no sourer with quantity, merely deeper. His life was as father and fate had willed … no matter how much he might dream … “

Cerise has a similar gut-wrenching instance of self-loathing, though I won’t go into details so as to avoid spoilers. Reginald probably has the lightest burden, but that’s only a matter of scale; he feels just as trapped in his role as the other two. And once one meets his father, one gets a sense of how bad his young life has probably been. With one exception, the other characters are well-drawn regardless of their page time, whether that be Cerise’s parents, Robert’s mother, Reginald’s valet, or Robert’s two best friends, Ostvald and Elfrieda, each feeling like they’re in the midst of their own stories though we only see their intersection with this one.

Beyond character, the prose is, as always with Beagle, wonderfully readable, always sharp and precise, often lyrical, sprinkled with original metaphors, and full of naturally wry dialogue. And when he needs to create a vivid set scene, as he does for instance with the Dragon Market, the setting and the characters that populate feel wholly real for all that they’re selling imported dragons. Beagle also does a nice job of varying his sentence style and structure to the moment, as when he describes the market’s sense of bustling noise and activity with a long sentence that rushes forward via a series of clauses:

Some of the noise and commotion was the natural cacophony of the market itself — the squalling and hissing of captive dragons, the shouting of vendors, the squealing and laughter of children at play with this or that toy, crying out for this or that confection — but the greatest part of their own making, as car after royal cart came rocking and swaying into view.

The one off note for me in the novel was the villain, who feels a bit betwixt and between in terms of whimsy and villainy and so never really is effective in either role. That said, he has his moments, and I particularly enjoyed the way he enacts his violence on people, which is so, so Beagle-like.

I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons is quintessential Beagle, a wryly askew fairy-tale-ish style and structure full of whimsy and warm-hearted humor (Cerise’s king and queen parents are an especial joy) but threaded through as well with more dark and bittersweet themes as well as some truly graphic violence, as Beagle has always hewn more to the old-style, original fairy tales rather than the Disney-fied versions. Beagle is his own type of writer of course, but I’d say in many ways this book reminds me of Lloyd Alexander’s PRYDAIN series in how both blend innocence, goofiness, bitterness, violence, and sweetness and how both make use of the “classic” fantasy characters but in such crafted fashion such that they feel uniquely their own selves. I confess to I’m hoping I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons is similar in one other respect, extending our time with these characters past one book.

Published in May 2024. Dragons are common in the backwater kingdom of Bellemontagne, coming in sizes from mouse-like vermin all the way up to castle-smashing monsters. Gaius Aurelius Constantine Heliogabalus Thrax (who would much rather people call him Robert) has recently inherited his deceased dad’s job as a dragon catcher/exterminator, a career he detests with all his heart in part because he likes dragons, feeling a kinship with them, but mainly because his dream has always been the impossible one of transcending his humble origin to someday become a prince’s valet. Needless to say, fate has something rather different in mind…


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

    View all posts