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Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke
If you've ever wanted to go on an adventure with magical creatures, Cornelia Funke's book Dragon Rider will show you what it is like to fly with a dragon on a great quest. You'll learn about the power of dragon fire and brownie spit, but also about the strength of friendship and the importance of home.
Humans are about to destroy the secret valley where brownies and dragons live in peace together. So Sorrel the brownie and Firedrake the silver dragon set out to find the Rim of Heaven, a cave where the Dragons can live safely forever. Slatebeard, an old Dragon who was born in the Rim of Heaven, starts them on their quest. He warns them about the Golden One, Nettlebeard, a dragon-eating monster, whose “claws were sharper than splinters of glass, his teeth had a keen cutting edge, and he was mightier than any other living creature.”
Will Sorrel and Firedrake defeat Nettlebeard and find the Rim of Heaven, or are the dragons doomed?
The quest begins with Firedrake, a graceful dragon who lives on moonlight and flies by night, and his friend Sorrel the brownie, a quarrelsome cat who walks on two legs and spends most of her time thinking about mushrooms. But the main character of the story is really Ben, a homeless boy who Sorrel and Firedrake find at the beginning of their adventure.
Guided by a map they get from Gilbert Greytail, a rodent mapmaker, Ben, Sorrel, and Firedrake travel from Scotland to the Himalayas. They meet Professor Barnabas Greenbloom, an expert on “fabulous creatures.” He suggests that they should seek out Asif, a Djinn with a thousand eyes, who gives them clues to the location of Rim of Heaven. The professor also tells them about a village that reveres dragons, where a dragonologist gives the travelers a vital gift.
Nettlebeard sends his spy, Twigleg, to follow the adventurers. But Twigleg takes a liking to Ben, and he has to decide between his old master and his new friends.
In the book we learn that fabulous creatures attract each other, so along the way, Firedrake and his companions find sea serpents, dwarves, pesky elves, and a terrifying basilisk. They also meet “ace airwoman” Lola Greytail the rat, Buddhist monks, and many different kinds of mushrooms.
They fight battles, hide from enemies, make friends, and look for the Rim of Heaven, flying always by the light of the moon that gives dragons their strength.
Dragon Rider was originally published in German in 1997 as Drachenreiter by Cornelia Funke. The English translation by Anthea Bell uses vivid details to paint a picture in the reader's mind. For instance, we learn that Asif the Djinn's “thousand eyes, small and bright as jewels, sparkled all over his skin, his shoulders, his arms, and his fat belly…. Blue hairs thick as saplings grew in his nostrils, and his pointed ears, rising high above his bald skull, were larger than Firedrake's wings.”
The novel is also full of suspense. While flying over the Indian Ocean, an eclipse blocks the moon, forcing Firedrake from the sky. For a moment, it looks like there is nowhere to land: “Firedrake dropped lower and lower. Ben could already taste the salty spray on his lips. And then, in the last red glow of light cast on the waves by the fading moon, he suddenly saw a chain of small islands rising from the sea in the distance…. At that very moment the earth's dark shadow engulfed the moon. Firedrake plummeted from the sky, like a bird winged by a shot, but the first of the strange islands was already below them.”
Readers familiar with the dragons of the popular television show Dragon Tales will find that Dragon Rider is a more serious story, written for an older audience. The characters have an important mission: the fate of a whole species hangs in the balance. The plot is complex, more like the Dealing with Dragons series of book, where characters are kind but wary, and the problems they face force them to grow and change.
If you are looking for a suspenseful book about magical creatures, written with rich details, then Dragon Rider is an excellent choice. The book has dark themes, but also a positive message: that friends are strong when they stick together, and home is a place where you don't have to hide—you can just be yourself.