Shadow Dragons (Imaginarium Geographica) by James A Owen

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Shadow Dragons (Imaginarium Geographica) by James A Owen

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Volume four isn't the best place to start but this stands as a very erudite and intelligent teen fantasy, if a little awkward to jump into at this juncture.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: January 2010
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's Books
ISBN: 978-1847386519

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If you want to know where Tolkein, C S Lewis and their ilk got their ideas from, you might consider their jobs. No - not their work in Oxbridge universities. In this book, at least, John, Charles and Jack are guardians of a very important book, the Imaginarium Geographica, within which lives a lot of secret, vital information, and almost the soul of the land. They might not get a surname so we know immediately who is whom. They might be from a different world - there is certainly enough talk of those in these pages. But we'll see them meet a vanishing Cheshire cat, a certain Spanish knight we might have thought fictional, and more, en route to a quest of Arthurian proportions.

This has definitely been done before, the melange of real historical people entering and saving imagined realms, but it has never been done so comprehensively. Anybody who has ever written with an eye to the fantastical, from Chaucer and Geoffrey of Monmouth, is dragged into affairs. Things crop up, from all ages - principally Victorian through to the 1930s and 1940s when most of this is set - things that are the clear precedent for real-life events, or for inspiration for well-known writings.

This, we are told, was an easy book to write, but dare I say it was difficult to review. It's described in the foreword as transitive, and middled in the series (implying three books to come after, joining the three before this one). I'm left jumping into the middle, finding the language a little archaic, the characters a little middle-aged, and wondering how this will be turned into a successful teen fantasy title. I can't tell how blatant or circumspect Mr Owen wants to be regarding who he's allegedly writing about, either.

The rules regarding the alternative worlds reality, and who knows of it, and has what power to get there (either through doorways - before Houdini and Conan Doyle steal them for their master - or through portraits done by the artist from The Picture of Dorian Gray) - all was very woolly and vague for me at first.

So too seemed the plot - it took far too far before I had a handle on what was supposed to be the quest featured in this volume - so far in it goes against my nature to discuss things on so high a page number. And there remain aspects of the time travelling side of the saga, aspects regarding the causes, clauses and consequences, that I still haven't got my head around.

I have got my head around the merits of the book, however. Prime amongst them, for me, is the definitive way anything and everything can find a way into things. Nowhere else will Greek and Norse myth, and classical children's literature, meet over Arthurian legend, so completely, compellingly, and, most importantly, most sensibly. The author's ease extends to character, from reimaginings of known people, to others we might think we haven't met before, such as the misplaced young Rose here.

I am sure if a full-on fantasy drama sequence could be had Owen would be competent at it - he writes action, movement, location, and the difficult art of many characters interacting simultaneously all very well. It's just this book, with its longueurs before the crux of things is met, does not allow him to enter full flight.

It's at this point I look over what I've written here and realise I have already said more I thought I would be saying, but that's to this book's merit. This is definitely not a slapdash brainless actioner - the author comes across as far too intelligent for that, and if it were ever filmed (which I can't see happening) it would be a lot more arthouse than popcorn flummery.

I still find it hard to relate to the entire series, however long it turns out to be - Owen already has one decalogue under his belt. But this certainly suggests, and strongly, a distinctive alternative to the teen fantasy norm. It might flummox people - certainly I don't think starting here is to be advised, what with Captain Nemo coming back to life after several characters have already seen him into his grave, and Stephen both disappearing and still being around for the finale.

It also might flummox those people expecting a dragon saga - they are there, but they take a lot of seeking out.

But despite all my brow furrowing, and wondering just what I'd missed, I did find the flow and drama of the story, the craft and knowledge of the author, quite absorbing long enough before the end. Sometimes you have to live as a fantasy hero yourself - with a struggle to face, but one that's worth it.

I must thank the kind and nice publishers for my review copy.

This is immeasurably better than the graphic novels of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen". You might be better off filing it next to Jasper Fforde's original playful mixtures, especially when, here at least, the comedy comes stronger as one gets more settled into things.

Teen fantasy readers should be prepared to be absorbed further in Victorian times with the trilogy starting with Mortlock by Jon Mayhew.

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