The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
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The Asian Reporter's
From The Asian Reporter, V13, #50 (December 9-15,
2003), page 16.
By George Herman
Illustrated by Kristen Seaton
Tuttle Publishing, 2003
Hardcover, 46 pages, $15.95
By Josephine Bridges
Nine Dragons was written and illustrated by Oregonians; author George Herman lives in Portland and artist Kristen Seaton is currently attending Willamette University. The book was published by Tuttle, a venerable champion of Asian literature with an office in Rutland, Vermont that puts this reviewer’s hometown on the map. The cover — by which I often can judge a book — is a drop-dead gorgeous depiction of an underwater dragon. Too bad Nine Dragons didn’t live up to my expectations.
The layout is irritating, the characters unsympathetic, and the plot murky. Kids are the severest critics around, and the seven-year-old I try to remember being when I review children’s books was frowning and fidgeting all the way through this one. Not a good sign.
Here’s the rundown: Two villages, separated by mountains, lie on an island. The people of the fertile land surrounding Wongsu are farmers and hunters, while the people of Makai are gatherers, fishing and harvesting fruit.
"the Wongsu and the Makai shared a common legend:
that the mountains were the home of terrible and terrifying dragons …
… And like all legends, there was some truth in this."
During a drought, a Wongsu hunter tracks a goat to the top of the mountains and takes interest in the village of Makai below. Under cover of night he steals some of their drying fish and seafood, then returns to tell his village elder that the Makai throw blankets full of holes into the sea and stab at it with spears.
Grandfather Elder sat deep in thought.
Finally he spoke: "They possess this great secret, and, being barbarians,
they would probably not share it with us.
We must arm ourselves and come down upon their village.
We must force this secret from them so we may feed our own families."
At this point the dragons take the stage. Their sentry awakens first and announces:
"I s-s-smell s-s-something!
Forges-s-s! Man s-s-sweat! Fear and fury!"
One by one, the other dragons shake off their sleep and begin to argue about the place of dragons in the human war. Finally the oldest of the dragons wakes up and settles the dispute in a rational, if predictable, manner. As the humans build a road across the mountains, the dragons fret that their days are numbered, but then "a voice that was deeper than thought and stronger than love" tells them that they will be honored because of their wisdom and courage.
The narrative, while clearly prose, is presented on the page with line breaks, like poetry, and, to make a bad thing even worse, centered. One dragon, portrayed as strong but a touch stupid, almost captured my interest, but not quite. The plot can be summed up as the unfortunate intersection of two marginally related stories, that of the villagers and that of the dragons, neither of which is remarkable.
Nine Dragons isn’t bad enough to skewer with a venomous write-up, or good enough to merit even moderate praise. The illustrations are lovely and the moral of the story beyond reproach but, frankly, so what?