The Last Dragonslayer, by Jasper Fforde, is a young adult novel whose style will be readily familiar to those who’ve read Fforde’s adult fare such as the THURSDAY NEXT series. Unfortunately, the wit and satire don’t quite translate fully to the young adult realm here, and while The Last Dragonslayer is a fast and mildly entertaining read, it falls short of the exuberant originality and enjoyment I’ve come to expect from this author.
The novel’s setting is a not-quite-our-own world, more precisely the Ununited Kingdoms, where once upon a time magic was a more powerful and pervasive force but has been gradually weakening over time. Where wizards once mastered the winds, now they go about unclogging drains, getting cats out of trees, delivering pizzas and organ transplants via flying carpet, and replacing the wiring in old houses without the hassle of putting holes in the walls. Even these jobs are drying up though, as technology takes over more and more and magic wanes. The Kingdoms are down to one magic employment agency — the Kazam Mystical Arts Management — currently being managed by fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange, who took over when the founding wizard of Kazam disappeared.
Things have been complicated since then, but now magic is suddenly gaining strength, a new Foundling has been sent to learn the ropes under Jennifer, and seers all over are getting a premonition that the last dragon is going to die at the hand of the last dragonslayer in a week’s time and that something called Big Magic is due to arrive at roughly the same time. But whether that will be the end of magic or something else entirely, no one knows. Soon, Jennifer finds herself getting caught up in court politics, talking to dragons, trying to stave off a border war, and even running for her life (along with her trusty Quark beast pet).
The plot is a bit weak and scattershot, lacking a strong or smooth sense of movement. The exceptions are the opening few pages where the characters and basic setting are introduced and the closing few pages, where the plot focuses and events become weightier. In between, though, is a long stretch of events which move apace from one to the other in sometimes jarring, sometimes arbitrary, and often rushed fashion.
The characterization is likewise weak. Most of the characters beyond Jennifer are pretty shallow, serving more as props to move plot along or allow for some satire, and few come to life. And those that do are not on the scene long enough to make much of an impact. Jennifer herself is lively and likable, and since we’re always with her we get to know her well in the story’s context, but I can’t see she ever felt fully realized either. We get a few nods to some depths, as when she says she misses her parents (she’s another Foundling), but such lines are few and far between and never go much beyond a single line or two.
In most cases, an adequate plot and characterization would probably be enough, as much of the enjoyment of reading Fforde comes not so much from plot as from his satirical bent and his sense of humor. There are lots of targets for both here: celebrity culture, merchandising, corporate power, greed, and especially the bureaucracy involved in doing magic, some of which Jennifer describes to Tiger, the new Foundling at Kazam:
To perform magic, you have to have a Certificate of Conformity… be accredited to a licensed House of Enchantment… each spell has to be logged on a from B2-5C for anything below a thousand shandars, a B1-7G form for spells not exceeding ten thousand shandars, and a Form P4-7D for those over ten thousand shandars.
The satire throughout is amusing, but not particularly subtle. Which I suppose makes sense for the younger audience, but at times, I wondered if the younger audience would find much of it funny. The book feels a bit betwixt and between and not wholly comfortable in that area. To give a film analogy, it lacks that smoothly confident two-layered humor one sees in just about all the Pixar films.
As I said above, it’s still a mildly enjoyable read, and certainly a fast one. The novel comes in at under 300 pages (a good choice to keep it short) and I read it in a single sitting. Adults will chuckle and smile at a lot, especially early on (not because the humor worsens, but it’s just more of the same) and younger readers will find some of the names and dialogue funny, and will also I’d say enjoy the quirks of the Quark beast. But based on prior Fforde material, I’d call it somewhat disappointing. There is a follow-up book already out in England (and a third to follow), and I’m kind of curious where Jennifer goes after this one (The Last Dragonslayer does resolve its story and can happily be read as a single book), but I’m not burning to know. My recommendation now is to hold off to see how books two and three fare before starting the series.