The Last Elf by Silvana De Mari

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Yorsh (short for Yorshkrunsquarkljolnerstrink) is the last of the elves. He's very young, only lately born. He lives in a world in which elves have been persecuted for years; deported, interned and murdered. When his grandmother died, Yorsh was left all alone, the last of his kind. In this brutal world, it rains constantly and famine plagues the land. But there is some good left. Yorsh is befriended by two humans and together they discover a prophecy...

When the last dragon and the last elf break the circle, the past and the future will meet, the sun of a new summer will shine in the sky.

And so the three set out to find the dragon and end the suffering. And they do. This, though, is only the start of the story. The rain might have stopped, but the land is still ruled with hate and fear and brutal repression. There is another prophecy and an even great destiny for the last of the elves and the last of the dragons.

Quest fantasies aren't really my bag if I'm honest. I don't actively dislike them, but I certainly don't seek them out. The Last Elf, however, caught me and held me from the very first to the very last page. It's absolutely delightful. It's multi-layered and whimiscally written - everyone can take something from it. It's the kind of book you could read aloud en famille, and everyone from grandparents to toddlers would love to listen. The thematic background is a political one; a polemic against totalitarianism and racism, possibly loosely based on the Holocaust (one of the reasons the elves are hated, for example, is their financial acumen). It's all about reaching out to one another and accepting differences.

It's also very funny. Yorsh is ingenious and quite frighteningly intelligent. His power, though, springs from his empathy. But he's also lately born, remember, and so very innocent. He continually fails to recognise evil and the book is full of comic interludes in which Yorsh escapes danger by sheer naivety. He thinks, for example, a ferocious troll is quite beautiful, and because he believes it so does the troll, who immediately becomes putty in his hands. Erbrow, the dragon, is insufferably snobbish and superior and provides a running stream of killer one-liners.

These two characters, plus the human child heroine, Robi, are so sympathetic that you follow the quest rooting for them as hard as you can. It's a long book for the younger readers - 350 pages or so - and the vocabulary makes no condescensions either, but the narrative really will carry them along. A great deal is packed into The Last Elf and I can't help but wonder, had it been published here, or in the States, and not in Italy, whether it would have been spun out to a trilogy. Thank heavens it wasn't. It's just right as it is.

A more straightforward quest fantasy, but an equally enjoyable one, is Runemarks by Joanne Harris.

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