THE PYGMY DRAGON by Marc Secchia (SPFBO 6 Semi-Finalist Review)
The sixth Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) is almost reaching the end of round 1, and some of our fellow blogs have already started announcing their finalists!
As you know, we’ve cut our batch of 30 books down to 6 semi-finalists, and for the rest of this week we’ll be reviewing – and eliminating! – each of these books in full before eventually announcing our SPFBO 6 finalist on Friday.
Without further ado, then…
The Pygmy Dragon
Yesterday, a Dragon kidnapped me from my cage in a zoo.
Stolen from her jungle home and sold to a zookeeper, Pip knows only a world behind bars, a world in which a Pygmy warrior and her giant ape friends are a zoo attraction. She dreams of being Human. She dreams of escaping to the world outside her cage.
Then, the Dragon Zardon kidnaps her into a new life. Pip rides Dragonback across the Island-World to her new school – a school inside a volcano. A school where Humans learn to be Dragon Riders. But this is only a foretaste of her magical destiny, for the Dragon Assassins are coming. They have floated an Island across the Rift and their aim is nothing less than the massacre of all Dragons.
Now, the courage of the smallest will be tested to the utmost. For Pip is the Pygmy Dragon, and this is her tale.
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
I liked the cover, but was quite put off with the start of the book. It had a very childlike tone to it, that just didn’t work well for me. Thankfully it changed tone after a while!
As I have mentioned in my initial review, I very much like the cover too, despite there being a face on it, which I’m not usually fond of. I found the whole cover to be eye-catching.
Unfortunately, the prose was quite the disappointment for me. As Julia has said, there is a very childlike tone, and it’s also very simplistically written, so whilst the tone may shift as the book progresses, the overall style of the prose did not.
The cover is professional and eye-catching. Production values are sound in that I didn’t find any typos that snagged my attention. Looking back at my notes I find I saw quite a few nice lines in the opening section, and there is a certain naif style to the prose which fits that initial unique setting of Pip imprisoned as a zoo exhibit.
However, sadly once we got into the body of the story, unlike Pip lifted up by a dragon, the prose did not rise as high as I would have liked or as the narrative demanded. It is as if the author got carried away by the desire to tell a big sprawlingly epic story. In the rush from scene to scene in an increasingly madcap plot it seems action was prioritised over prose.
Initially, as I said in my previous review, I hated the prologue but loved the first 20%. I stopped when Pip meets Zardon the dragon, having breezed quite quickly through it, unable to put the story down. But like Theo, I was disappointed by the rest of the book. I mentioned in that earlier review that the prologue and the opening chapters felt like they’d been written by different people, and we return to that differing narrative style often. The writing is often clunky and awkward:
“To Pip’s surprise, he kept flying perfectly straight forwards while looking back at her.”
We also get told a great deal, instead of being shown:
“Pip realised, the way he talked, that Zardon must once have had a Dragon Rider he loved.”
Like Theo says, the prose takes a massive hit from Secchia’s constantly shifting story arc.
A very fine cover indeed, followed by a strong, engaging opening that suffers from the clunkiness Beth exemplified.
A promising twenty percent, followed by a shift in tone that fails to deliver on the initial premise. Perhaps it’s presumptive to judge a book by what you expect it to be–but I would argue that any one book’s opening fifth makes a promise to its readers as to what the shape the remnant of a piece will take; The Pygmy Dragon promised a much more personal, better paced story than the one it delivered, a bland mess of magical-school, draconic, and Weredragon tropes.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
(Do you have a favourite? Is the main character sympathetic? How’s the dialogue? Are the protagonists believable? Do we care about their plight?)
I did like the characters, but they could have been quite a bit deeper. At times they felt a bit two dimensional or changed their whole personality in what felt like a shake of the shoulders. To me this book felt like a YA book, and for that style the characters were working well enough! But for an adult read I’d have expected a bit more.
What I found especially off putting was some sexual innuendo at times (no actual sex scenes in this one), in combination with the age of the characters. It just felt off putting at times.
All in all I did like them enough to want to know what would happen to them, and to finish the whole book.
“It’s a bone, wedged between your teeth,” she said.
“Probably some luckless ralti sheep. Can you reach it?”
“Not without climbing inside your mouth.”
“Ah, doth the mighty Pygmy warrior tremble?” That was how Pip ended up inside Zardon’s mouth, clambering over the rough bulge of his tongue toward the back of his throat. She tried to ignore thoughts of what might happen if she tickled him enough to trigger his swallow-reflex. Dragons food-stomachs were extremely acidic, able to digest most things, even bone. He’d make short work of a Pygmy, warrior or none.
Dragon care was not what Pip had imagined, particularly not when she had to hove her arm up to the armpit into his ear canal to dig out a lump of ear wax he could not reach. Dragons had three ear canals either side of their skull, pointing forward, upward and sideways. The passages were easily large enough to accommodate her arm. Each apparently led to a separate inner ear, and could be independently closed by a ring of muscles just within the canal’s entrance. When he inadvertently tried to close the canal in response to her digging around inside his skull, it felt as though her arm had been clamped in a vice.
Pip hauled out a sizeable gobbet of violet-coloured wax: “Don’t you ever clean your ears?”
“My claws can’t reach,” said Zardon.
“I feel as if I’m scooping out your brains when I do this.” She thrust her fingers into a blob of warm, squidgy ear-wax. Lovely.
“No danger of finding any brains down there,” quipped Zardon. “Ah, that’s much better already. Do I have to listen to every word of your grumbling now?”
“You can pretend to be deaf, like before.”
I was a little grossed out by that scene Julia! The description of ear wax was so icky and felt like that whole scene just came out of nowhere! I imagine a younger reader would love it though, and at first I felt that this is the audience the book was aimed at. The characters do feel incredibly young, and shallow in many respects, which I feel is more appealing to a preteen readership.
Yet as Julia quite rightly states, the implied sexual visualisation of Pip felt very out of place and to be honest, downright pervy.
As I’ve said, we also don’t really get to see much depth to our main protagonist, Pip. She goes through a fair amount during her time in the zoo and then in the Dragon Riding Academy, perhaps, I’d say too much. Although she remains wilful, which is an aspect I liked about her, I would have liked to have seen more complexity. Often dialogue was used to state directly how the characters were feeling and this just felt like too much was being told rather than shown.
In terms of other characters I felt many were somewhat stereotypical – the young teenage bullies and the stern overbearing teachers. However I was most intrigued by the ape Hunagu, and would have preferred more focus on him during the middle of the novel.
Yes, I agree with both Julia and Nils. We were so quickly introduced to a plethora of minor characters and dragons (soooo many dragons!) that they really struggled to make an impression on me. Like when the big bad traitor finally turns up in the last reel scene I found myself thinking “Who dat? Should I know you?”
I liked Pip, I wanted to like Pip, but so much of the plot tension and conflict seemed to be driven by playground politics of the kind of “yer mum…” style of insult and counter insult. And I have to agree that the sexualisation aspects really jarred for me. The number of references to how alluring Pip’s bare behind was (apparently to humans and dragons). While there are good plot reasons why she ends up naked a lot, it does seem to invite unseemly observations from other characters.
“His eyes flickered over her body before leaping guiltily back to her face.”
“She does have nice haunches”
And even without the interest in Pip’s nakedness there is the slightly iffy teacher-pupil relationship that didn’t sit right for me, and particularly this exchange once the two have surrendered to their mutual longing.
“I’ve no wish for you to call me Master, any longer,” said he, laying his hand upon hers.
“Save on the pillow-roll?”
But yes, Nils – a good shout out for Hunagu who was certainly one of my favourite characters.
Hunagu was my favourite character too! I really felt that, once Pip was out of the zoo, he was very much an afterthought, like perhaps the author thought leaving him in the zoo would be too cruel and not something Pip would do, but then he didn’t know what else to do with him…
I struggled so much once Pip reached the school, to the point that there wasn’t anyone I liked, not even Pip anymore. There was an enormous shift in tone that left me so uncomfortable. The characters did not fare well in this shift unfortunately. When Pip first enters the school, there is a Severus-Snape-like character who gives her a hard time for no apparent reason, and she then meets the headmaster, who sounded a great deal like Albus Dumbledore:
“Kassik’s face was lined like old leather beneath a fringe of pure white hair which curled beneath the falki, but despite his apparent age, his shoulders were square and his back held perfectly straight, giving him an air of enormous dignity.”
This elderly teacher figure is the Master quoted above by Theo, and the one answering about the pillow-roll is his fourth year student. Vomit for days.
Haha, have to agree, it made me queasy too!!
I’m glad it wasn’t just me!
The teachers, dragons, and pupils were indistinguishable I’m afraid. There was no variety in tone to give a sense that this person is a figure of respect, this person is a mutual, this person is a figure of authority. By the half-way point, they were all flinging innuendos at each other regardless. I found the inconsistencies disappointing; for example Pip’s culture apparently used to worship dragons, but she treats them with barely any respect.
I commended the use of a dragon in the opening twenty percent when we picked this piece as a semi-finalist; the exact words I used were, “It was easy enough to see that this book succeeds where so much fantasy fails, in using its bloody dragon properly.”
Alas, that isn’t the way the book goes, oh no. The sheer amount of dragons takes away from the awe so important to epic fantasy; the way characters, particularly Pip (as Beth pointed out, she shows no respect to them) interact with them unravels the powerful imagery that dragons provide. The dragons lack…presence.
As for Pip, Theo has the right of it. A lot of the text had moments that had me furrowing my eyebrows.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
(Slow start? Hard to keep up? Does the author use flashbacks/POV shifts? Do these work well or not? Did each chapter keep you turning the pages?)
Very hard start to get into for me. Especially the prologue was very, very much not my cup of tea. Once Pip got a bit older and the tone of the story changed from Pip telling her story to normal chapters, the story finally set its hooks into me and I started to enjoy it. It switched quite a bit between slow and descriptive parts and high action scenes. Those transitions weren’t always smooth, but overall the balance worked out for me.
Sorry Julia, I felt the opposite way! I was more intrigued by the beginning of the novel, when Pip was trapped in the zoo, then I was by her time at the Dragon Riding Academy.
Same here sorry!
During the middle section the narrative changed to a typical magical school story arc where we see Pip face the usual fare of bullying, skirmishes, overbearing insulting teachers and dreaded exams. Yes there were dragons involved, and that did add a touch of an Eragon feel to it, but for me personally I wasn’t very enthused by it.
I appreciated how Secchia added themes of racial prejudice and ignorance throughout, and I did like the way Pip continuously stood up for herself, despite the hatred thrown at her. Yet, I didn’t appreciate the inclusion of stereotypical racist terms. For example Pip was often referred to as a ‘monkey’ and that she was ‘fresh off the boat’ or ‘dragonship’ instead of boat. I felt extremely uncomfortable with this.
This was such a fairly typical story arc where the protagonist struggles then very quickly strives, which was more tedious than it was entertaining.
The last few chapters I have to say were exciting, with a few twists (which were a tad predictable) thrown in, but in all honesty, by then I just personally wasn’t invested.
I think both book and character paradoxically lost something in the escape from the zoo. The zoo part was different and it constrained author and character in a way that forced a kind of creativity. Once freed from the zoo and into the rather tropey world of dragons, shape-shifters, dragon-rider school the story and the character sprawled out in a rather indulgent way. Julia has mentioned the abrupt shifts between high octane action and slower descriptive passages and certainly Secchia revels in the chaos of pell-mell battles with claws, blades and fireballs flying in three dimensional aerial combat.
But I didn’t feel confident there was a coherent underlying plot, rather than a vague and rather insubstantial thread bearing the weight of too many switchback plot developments. There is a war coming between dragons, the people and civilisation who captured and imprisoned Pip are largely elided out of the story. Yet, a bit like the parallel worlds of magic and ordinary humans in Harry Potter, it is difficult to see how the two worlds can co-exist without being aware of and impacted by each other. The numerous and powerful dragons should utterly dominate this world, yet a dragon breaking into a zoo to free Pip is a rare and noteworthy incident.
Without that sense of a strong coherent central narrative, I found some situations just felt too contrived, with a suspicion that rationales were being retrofitted to events through subsequent exposition. And that made it difficult for me to be invested in several key developments. In the last confrontation when Pip is supposedly being monitored remotely by her friends, the big bad turns up and it all goes to hell in a handcart with none of the friends arriving to help because … because… because Secchia needed to manipulate the tension in a different way? That and other aspects of the ending left me feeling less satisfied than I wanted to be.
I also agree with Nils, I was unsettled by the use of racist terms – particularly ‘monkey’ – in ways which I never felt were properly addressed.
I agree with Nils and Theo, Pip’s time at the zoo, and the mystery of whether or not she’d ever find her way home, was a much better story. All of that seemed to go out the window once she got to dragon school, and it was like a completely different book.
I found the writing really quite disconnected, like the author had been cutting out sections to stream-line the narrative, but hadn’t smoothed the edges. For example, around the 22% mark when Pip goes rooting in Zardon’s mouth because apparently he’s in pain, but there was no mention of his being in pain until Pip is rooting in his mouth. Then we apparently jump ahead to another time Pip has to look after him, this time by cleaning out his ear – but the actual timeline doesn’t seem to have changed (as we move swiftly onto ‘the following afternoon’)
Theo makes such a good point – I couldn’t tell you what the plot of this story was, as it seems to shift so much, and is a different beast at different parts of the book. For a while, it seemed the plot was “escape captivity and get home” – but once she escapes captivity, that plot line seemed to go out the window. Unbelievably, the plot line with dragons was my least favourite. This may be controversial, but sexy dragons don’t float my boat.
Nils is right to praise the inclusion of racial prejudice–it was a fine enough touch, and created at least some weighty interpersonal conflict; something the book struggled with, otherwise. Like Beth, I could hardly begin to work out the exact plot of the book; not in a single, straightforward sentence. If I had to explain it, I would use one of those meandering sentences full of subordinate clauses and parentheticals drawn by commas, em-dashes, and parentheses.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
Plenty of great ideas, but once again some of them just not fully fleshed out in my eyes. For a YA book it is well enough, but for an adult book I’d expect more depth, a smoother handling of different parts of the worldbuilding and especially less random powers and (often rather foreseeable) “twists”.
Can a book have too many dragons? Well this one certainly poses that question.
Re: My character section, T.
Who would have thought we’d complain about too many dragons?! But I certainly agree with you, Theo!
There are interesting aspects to this world of island chains with low altitude “cloud lands” covered in opaque poisonous gases. Secchia briefly dips us and Pip into this world and teases us with ideas of what it might contain.
The magic and the combat are all a bit breathless at times. Pip’s secret powers prove interesting, though it is not yet explained where they come from and I hungered for some logic to pin that on. But the battle scenes leave you wondering how anybody survived since they at times feel like a relentless infliction of multiple fatal wounds. I just felt a lack of consistency in that some beasts were slain instantly and others as indestructible–despite multiple shreddings–as Captain Jack Harkness from Dr Who.
As far as originality is concerned, this draws on many recognisable themes. Dragons, shape-shifters, dragon-rider school, boarding school bullying. While a story is wound around these themes, the book left its most original material in Pip’s cage in the zoo.
So this world is full of intelligent talking animals, in particular dragons. To say much more would head into spoiler territory, so I’ll keep it brief.
They are of different colour, temperaments and species. Secchia tries to portray them as realistically as possible by adding descriptions of their biological and physiological make up, which was a lovely added touch. As Julia has mentioned though, I too felt it all lacked depth.
It felt like Secchia had created a wonderful world with loads of potential, but he just couldn’t quite get it across the page well enough. I loved this world of islands amongst the clouds, of two suns and two moons. I found the colonialist society that captures Pip quite interesting, the commentary of their savagery and disconnection in the face of technological advancement – but all that gets completely ditched when Pip goes to the dragon school. Ok not completely, we still get the racism.
I think the main reason the world building fell flat for me was because of the inconsistencies, and Secchia’s move into more typical tropes. I felt I really could have loved the school built within the volcanic island, but the immature portrayal of the characters from this point just ruined it all for me.
What Beth said–again, here’s the break between what the book promised and what it delivered. The magical school is the end-all of originality; it’s tropey, and when you consider my praise of this book for its strangeness, its original take, this was an unpleasant turn of events.
Quotations that resonated with you
There are several nice lines that caught my eye like these ones.
“Pip’s heart swelled in her chest, heavy with unshed tears. It was too beautiful.”
“Do you always wake up ready to bite a Dragon with his own words?” snorted Zardon.
This line made me laugh with its alliteration!
‘Flames blossomed along the path she had taken, coming within inches of roasting her rump.’
By the 40% mark, I’d felt like the prose had lost all hope, but was really pleasantly surprised by this section further along:
“Her past felt dislocated, close enough to remember, yet daily displaced by this new, captivating reality. Escaping the cage, she had begun to live as a Human, together with Humans, doing Human things – not cage things, no longer the living object of fascinated, pitying, debasing stares.”
But then within a couple of pages we resort back to:
“No wonder you go all mushy around boy Dragons.”
Maylin giggled. “A date with a Dragon, eh? Careful, they bite.”
“Grr,” said Kaiatha, pretending to claw Maylin’s face.”
“I have the power. Now die, you miserable excrement of worms!”
Incidentally, I used to say the same to my siblings.
I can totally imagine you saying that, Filip!!
For me it is definitely not an SPFBO winner, but it was a nice and fun easy story, that was entertaining enough to keep me reading to the end. Especially between the big, complex epic tomes, this was a nice breath of fresh air.
This remained a readable book that rushed along at a good pace. It earned a place in the semifinals with a compelling opening. However, I felt it needed more discipline to rein in the later sections and deliver a tighter and more focussed story with deeper characterisation that did justice to its remarkable protagonist.
I would definitely recommend this to a young preteen audience, or perhaps to YA readers, (only if the sexualisation and racist terms are omitted though) who are just finding their feet in the fantasy genre. However, for me personally I like my reads to hold a lot more depth.
I’m really sorry to say, but I was so disappointed by this book! I couldn’t believe just how different the rest of it was to the first 20%. I wouldn’t recommend this book, I’d argue that flimsy romances and giggling teenage girls do not necessarily make a YA – that the genre deserves more than that. I wouldn’t recommend it to readers who enjoy romance, as the romances seemed shallow and unhealthy; all the relationships are hetero, in one relationship the boy flirts with all the girls but he’s just laughed off, there’s the teacher/student romance, and (again spoilers sorry) when Pip is captured and tied up by the enemy she can’t decide if she’s frightened or attracted to him?
I think it had a great deal of promise but the execution was just too inconsistently poor.
The Pygmy Dragon takes on too much; despite its length, it’s a cluttered, dense book that doesn’t offer a rewarding experience in the act of reading. Not for me, and not for my fellow judges. I’m not sorry to see it go; I am sorry it failed to deliver the powerful story it could have.
***Commiserations to Marc Secchia and The Pygmy Dragon.***
We’re now down to five semi-finalists. Check back TOMORROW for our next elimination!
Who will be our SPFBO 6 finalist? Find out this Friday!
If you’re following SPFBO 6, let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join the discussion on social media (there’s a Facebook group here) and weigh in on Twitter using the hashtag #SPFBO.
Stay tuned over the next few days as we review our remaining semi-finalists and eventually pick our FINALIST (exciting!!), and check out our introduction to round 1!