Robin McKinley’s Dragonhaven is set in Smokehill National Park somewhere out west, where the major draw is a population of Draco australiensis —
Let’s stop there.
I love this novel about a national park with dragons, which is also a meditation on parenting, communication, and memory. The premise alone was enough to sell me on this 2007 novel by the author of a dozen or so smart, humane, chatty fantasy novels, but I’ll give you a little more detail to explain why I love it so much.
Jake Mendoza is the teenage son of the director of the dragon studies institute at Smokehill, a chronically underfunded, understaffed dragon reserve. Almost no one sees the dragons on the millions of acres of parkland; Smokehill rangers track dragon population by counting the casualties among wild sheep, deer, and bison. Smokehill also has a very strange dragon-proof (and more importantly, poacher-proof) fence. Jake and his father are both devastated by the death of Jake’s mother three years before on a dragon study sabbatical in Kenya (the world’s only preserves for the endangered dragons are at Smokehill, in Kenya, and in Australia, to which dragons are native. The detail in Dragonhaven on the rediscovery and near-extinction of dragons and the politics of protecting enormous, flying, endangered species is right on.)
The following happens in the first 50 pages of the book, so don’t fear spoilers. Jake is belatedly allowed to do his first solo hike in the park and stumbles upon a dragon. It’s not just a dragon, which he has never seen up close before, but a dragon who has just given birth, which no one in the records has ever seen. And not only that, the dragon is dying, shot by a poacher. These are all unthinkably strange things, but Jake is focused only on the surviving baby dragon, who he saves and tries to raise, despite knowing — because of that complicated legislative picture — that it’s illegal to save the life of a dragon.
The relationship between Jake and Lois the baby dragon and the serious parenting crash course Jake has to undertake (what do you feed a baby dragon and how do you keep it from burning you? How can you do anything else when she needs feeding every half hour?) is compelling and all-consuming and feels true. The book is structured as a memoir Jake is writing to explain the events at Smokehill to a national audience, and he explains that he was so short of sleep while raising Lois that some of those years were a blur. Jake’s voice really does feel like a teenager’s voice and it sells you on the story and its required suspensions of disbelief because you trust that it happened the way Jake said it, even if he didn’t understand the larger political ramifications.
There are excellent small observations: because it seems absurd to Jake to say “Good dragon, Lois” like he was talking to a dog, he says “Hot stuff, Lois!” as a praise-phrase. And it’s exactly right that interspecies telepathy would cause terrible headaches.
If the book had a different cover I could see it being sold as a thrilling adventure novel, or as a touching book about parents and children. As it is, look for it in the young adult section of your bookstore or library.
Suzanne Fischer is a historian and writer who lives in Detroit. She cares about people, places, and things. Find her on Twitter as @publichistorian