Second review for today, and a stand alone. I was far more impressed with this book than I thought I would be.
Customary warning: This is a reminder that these are my personal opinions. My thoughts and feelings are not your thoughts and feelings. I may not always be the target audience for a book; sometimes I am. If I do not like a book, that doesn’t mean you’ll dislike it. If I love a book or simply like a book, you may hate it. Take everything I say with this knowledge. If it sounds interesting to you despite what I’ve said, then go ahead and read it. You’ll only know you like something if you read it yourself.
That being said… Spoilers ahead.
The Hunting of the Last Dragon by Sherryl Jordan
Synopsis From The Book
The last of the great fire-breathing dragons has awakened. . . .
Everyone thought all the dragons had been wiped out—until a fierce flying beast appears and leaves the village of Doran in flames. There is only one survivor: Jude, an ordinary man who never intended to be a hero. He’d rather avoid any danger, but a strange, strong-willed girl from a distant land has her own plans for hunting the last dragon. Can her courage and cunning help him conquer his fear in time to save their world from devastation?
Initial Thoughts Before Reading:
The last of my super short books for the month. Until I get Tea Dragon Society, that is. My aunt got me this book from her school, when the school library was getting rid of books that kids do not read or check out much. I got quite a few, and I plan to read them next year. Not going to lie, I think this premise is super interesting. Which is 100% why I told her to pick it up for me. From what I can tell, its about the evil dragon rather than good. That’s something unique for my list of books right now.
Initial Thoughts After Reading:
Wow. I was not expecting this book to be so filled with factual information as it was. It was a historical fiction more so than a fantasy. I’ll get into that in a bit, but I did like this book. I want to make it clear that this book, while with more complex language, was definitely more geared for children or a Middle Grade audience. It is for that reason alone that I am so floored by the topics explored in the book, for the time it was written.
There are two plots: The first after the events of killing the last dragon. The second, is the killing of the last dragon. The second takes place within the first as our character Jude retells his story of the hunting to an Abbot.
In the first story, the after in a way. Jude and Jing-wei are in an Abbey, recuperating and deciding where to go. Jude is telling their story to an Abbot who is recording it, while Jing-wei cares for a dying Father. The story is told in the perspective of the Abbot writing Jude’s words verbatim. A man named Chen, a merchant from China, comes and wants to marry Jing-wei but Jude comes about his senses and asks her to marry him instead. The book ends with them deciding to get married and going off to live with each other.
The second part, aka the story of the Hunt, is the bulk of this story. Jude is an English boy, who lives with his family and amounts to little. He is craven and a liar. One day he goes to a market away from home to get a new bow. He has heard stories of burned towns (one of which his father told him) and rumors of dragons. At the market he gets a new bow and goes to the fair. At the fair he meets a man named Tybalt, who is rather crass. He challenges Jude to a challenge, Jude accepts, and Tybalt does a test of courage. Essentially he uses his sword to make Jude flinch. Jude does not.
At the fair, Jude sees a girl named “Lizzie Little Feet.” She is a “heathen” and a “demon” from the far away country of China, where “barbarians” roam. Jude sees how her feet are bound, and in some ways he does agree. He leaves and returns home only to find his village raised to the ground by the dragon. Tybalt and his men find Jude, and he lives with them.
After a short while they realize that Jude is not a master bowman, and take to being distasted in him. Tybalt’s sons torment Jude in a way. Jude asks to clean Lizzie’s cage (for she is kept in a cage to keep her from fleeing) and they agree. In time Lizzie and Jude become friends. She tells him of her culture from China, and why her feet were bound. She reveals many truths to him that he did not know.
One day, Richard a son of Tybalt, tries to rape Lizzie. Jude helps save her (although she knocks the guy out with a wooden branch, thinking she killed him). The two flee. They make it to an old Chinese woman named Lan, who is her town’s “witch” healer. She takes them in and heals Jude’s twisted ankle (that he got when carrying Jude after time). She also rebreaks Lizzie’s feet, to set them properly so that Lizzie may walk without pain one day. Lizzie asked for this specifically, for she does not want to rely on anyone.
The two stay with old Lan as Lizzie heals, and Jude learns that Lan wants him to kill the dragon. In the time that they are there, Jude’s preconcieved notions of the world are pushed. These are things about god, evil and good, medicine, culture. And ultimately his own courage is tested. He agrees to go kill the dragon with Lizzie for her sake.
The two go to St. Alfric’s Cove, where they found the bodies of many soldiers. The two make a kite, with Lizzie’s knowledge, and end up setting a trap with gunpowder. After a failed attempt, the two successfully take down the dragon. And with a swing of Tybalt’s sword (which Jude found on the beach with the dead men) he chop’s the dragons’ head off. He is burned in the process. Lizzie, who he calls by her Chinese name Jing-wei, heals him. The two travel to find more Chinese people living in England, and end up at the Abbey where they tell their story.
What I Liked:
Jude of Doran; As a character, he grows a lot. I like the Jude in the frame story than the childish boy in the picture. That kid I actually pretty much loathe in a way too. However, he does grow a lot and I’ll give him that. He is a farmer’s boy who learns to be a hero and that is good enough for me.
Jing-wei aka Lizzie; Not going to lie, when I started this book, I did not expect the lead female to be Chinese. I also didn’t expect her story to be so rich. Jing-wei is a noble girl by birth. When her home city, Hangchow (Hangzhou in modern romanization) caught a deadly disease, her family feld to find better fortune on trade routes in the west. Their ship was destroyed, only her mother and her survived, with Jing-wei’s wedding dress that was made for her and her tiny shoes. They are taken in by Gypsies (which yes I know is a slur, but it’s the word used). These nomads take care of her mother and her until her mother dies and then she is adopted by a wonderful woman. Her life is not that bad, with them trying to help her find more of her own people, until Tybalt finds her. He offers to buy her and her adopted mother refuses. A man kidnaps her and sells her to Tybalt, who locks her up. Jing-wei, in her story to Jude, tells him that she heard the noises of what can only be described as a fight to get her back. Thus I believe her found family loved her very much. They taught her english and many customs (she is also amazing at Latin later, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they taught her many languages). Jing-wei is tortured, ridiculed, and scorned for her appearance that in her home land was called beautiful. She does not lose hope, she remains steadfast, and when she gets the chance to take her life into her own hands, she takes it. She breaks her feet so that they may allow her to walk without much pain, even if that means she will not find a good husband. I found her admirable, brilliant, and ultimately a fantastic character to read. Jude learns much about her, but not because it is her job to fix him, more because she tries to be herself and honest to who that was (Also she does not hold back her criticism for his obtuseness).
Western vs Eastern culture and ideology; What I find the most fascinating about this book, is that ultimately the Eastern Chinese culture comes out on top. The Western culture is seen to be bigoted, and behind. Which China flourishes, the English bicker. Based on the Author’s Notes in the back, it is clear that the author didn’t even really see the English in a favorable light in this time. That so much of the world was flourishing, but they were not, and yet they acted haughty. This came across on the pages, and for what it’s worth — and from what I know of history — its true. Was Chinese culture perfection, not Jing-wei addresses that, but it was far beyond in ways. There is a line that Jude says in the framing story that I’ll write below, that really got me about this in specific. Either way I liked the conversation this book had on the culture war.
Courage as a Theme; Both Jing-wei and Jude are courageous in their own way. Jude’s is obvious, having to overcome his nature to face down a dragon, however Jing-wei faces down her culture and beliefs, as well as the culture and beliefs of the English. Both have to fight dragons, which is something said within the texts, and both come out differently.
This book came out in 2002; and while it is not perfect, that is a level of praise I want to give in in regards to diversity. Yes, it does describe Jing-wei with “almond eyes” and some other traits that would be frowned upon now. I let it pass because Jude is, for all intents and purposes, pretty racist. He learns to check himself in the story, and for that alone I am pretty pleased. What is more important to me, is the fact of Jing-wei’s decision to hurt herself to stand for herself. Jude thinks of Jing-wei as something of a fairy or a doll, something to protect and carry, yet she does this to herself. He begs her not to that he will take care of her and she refuses for it is what she wants. So often in literature, and reality, Asian femininity is a prevalent construct. That asian women (and men) are like dainty and beautiful. If you don’t know much about it, I recommend reading up on it.
__ Regardless! While yes, Jing-wei does marry the white man (who I may note is her lesser in many ways) she does so on her own volition to not be constrained to a societal structure that would hurt her. She wants to stand for herself and choose her own decisions. In 1356, when this book is set, that alone has me amazed. Yes she still has to get married, historically she would, but she makes that choice the way she wants. Is it perfect? No. (The whole bit about her wanting to help him because there is goodness in his heart, meh.) But she does what she wants because it is her decision. Yes, she needs saving in the beginning, but she is the one with the smarts. She is the one who saves him. I’m going to give this book props for daring, not only to have Jing-wei as its lead female, for when it was written, but for dealing with her arc in such a way that left me relatively satisfied.
What I Would Have Liked or Changed:
For a part of me, the writing style of being a recorded story being told bothered me in a way. It wasn’t badly written, it was just very… stream of consciousness and I would have liked more literary. This is a personal preference.
Time Taken To Read
Despite the fact that I can’t stand Jude, and it’s not perfect, I do want to give it a 5/5. For it opens up a dialogue in regards to biases, racism, history and a whole ton of other issues that I think would be interesting conversations to have with children and younger readers.
“Do you remember what Lan said about fear? She said fear was the faith in the enemy. If you dwell all the time on what makes you afraid, your own fear sucks the strength out of you.” – pg 147
“I’ve been remembering Old Lan of late, and the wisdom she had. I’m thinking now that mayhap she was no witch at all, but just a woman with more knowledge than perhaps we are comfortable with. Mayhap wisdom like Lan’s is only another side of truth, if truth be like a gem, cut on several sides to let the full light through.” – pg 149-150