So what does this have to do with Reeve's new middle grade novel, No Such Thing as Dragons? Well, here again Reeve deals with con men and the origin of legends in the context of the realities of life in the Middle Ages. He gives us Brock, a knight in rusty armor who goes from village to village conquering dragons—or rather, the fear of dragons (as one of his more educated and cynical clients puts it). Somewhere along the way, Brock purchases a young mute boy named Ansel, who comes to believe the pseudo-knight's assurances that dragons aren't real.
Until at last they come to a little village high on the mountainside, where the sly villagers have already sacrificed a young girl to appease the dragon they claim roosts up on the icy peaks. Accompanied by another con man posing as a friar, the dragon fighting team goes up the mountain, planning to pretend to vanquish the beast and then claim the spoils of victory.
To Brock's astonishment, there really is something up there. But here again, Reeve imagines what might be the real thing—not the sentient, romanticized creature of fairy tale fame, but a vicious and terrifying animal. The little group suffers as they confront the creature, even as they must battle the bitter wintry conditions on the highest slopes.
There's an adventure here, but Reeve seems just as interested in character, if not more so. He wants to know why Ansel is mute, and whether the boy will ever speak again. He wants to think about how a man like Brock might have good in him as well as ill. He wants to consider the fear of the villagers as well as their communal ruthlessness in response to that fear. He wants to show us unlikely feats of courage, although not precisely the ones you would expect. And that, more than the plot itself, is what makes this a very good book.
In addition, No Such Thing as Dragons offers us the joy of reading the work of a talented wordsmith. Reeve's language is delicious. Here's a sample in which he describes a medieval painting. Note the gentle satire, aimed at the romance of the artist's depiction:
Riding north with Brock, Ansel remembered the painting of St. George he'd seen in the big church in town. The saint had been all in armor, but bareheaded, with a golden halo balanced jauntily on his curls. The poor princess he'd come to save had a wide white forehead and yellow hair, and she looked surprisingly calm for someone who'd been sent out into the wilds as dragon food. She wore cloth-of-gold, and she carried a bunch of tall white lilies, perhaps as a sort of garnish. As for the dragon itself, Ansel recalled that it had looked like a bald green chicken with a lizard's head and the wings of a bat. Its wide-open mouth was vermilion red, and so was the blood that uncurled like red fern fronds from its breast as it leaned helpfully onto the point of the saint's lance.
He wondered if St. George had had a boy to serve him, and if so, why the boy had not been in the picture. Was it that he was just not important enough? Or was it, perhaps, that he was in the beast's belly?
Yes, Ansel's worth caring about. And what beautiful language! (The garnish line alone is worth seventeen bucks.) As if Reeve weren't talented enough, he provides the interior illustrations for the book, too, elegant little pen-and-ink pieces that start each chapter.
I also like the way Reeve includes common tropes about dragons, but gives them his own spin, making, for example, their reputation for hoarding treasure more of a magpie characteristic than a human one.
Plus, the author does intense things with setting, using the snowstorms and glaciers, rockslides and freezing nights on the mountain to pummel his characters—and his readers. Like the dragon, the mountain is unforgiving and utterly inhuman, yet natural. The cathedral scene, with its evocation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and even, dare I say, King Kong, is another wildly successful use of setting.
No Such Thing as Dragons is a short book at 186 pages, but it's well worth it: a compact, well-told tale combining the best of historical fiction with a sprinkling of fantasy, besides touching on themes like freedom and even animal rights. Reeve gives us a story that feels entirely true, up to and including its (non-)title character.
Note for Worried Parents: This book is for middle grade readers, but it does have a couple of horrific descriptions of a man and a horse being devoured by a monster, also various scenes of peril, some hard-hearted villagers, and a couple of con artists. The overall message is one of kindness, courage, and hope, however, as exemplified by the main character, Ansel.
FYI: Image above is of UK cover art, which I happen to prefer.
Update: Read another review at Charlotte's Library!