Dealing with Dragons

I discovered Patricia C. Wrede when I was ten or eleven years old after stumbling upon Dealing with Dragons on the bookstore shelf. Having recently started reading YA fantasy novels (aka having only read Tamora Pierce), Wrede represented a lighter, wittier strand of fantasy that made her books a quickly-devoured delight and I was only sorry not to have more of them. This particular series features a strong female lead named Princess Cimorene (well, leads if one counts Kazul, the female dragon) who is not interested in limiting her talents to "what princesses are supposed to do," and so Cimorene takes control of her own future. Yes, the storylines feature wizards and dragons, but I sincerely believe that it's heroines like Cimorene that help teach young girls to grow up as strong women, deciphering their own desires without simply submitting to what is expected of them.

Cimorene is the seventh and youngest daughter of the King and Queen of Linderwall and her parents are more than a little frustrated with her. Her six older sisters are blonde and just the perfect height so they might gaze adoringly up at a prince through their long eyelashes. Cimorene is tall, black-haired, and more than a little headstrong. She wants nothing to do with the boring subjects normally taught to princesses (lots of classes on etiquette, dancing, embroidery, and the proper reactions for every eventuality that might befall a princess... particularly how loud one should scream when being abducted by giants and so forth). Cimorene, instead, manages to bully a succession of court figures into giving her lessons in fencing, cooking, magic, juggling, and Latin (each new subject picked up when her father discovers one and puts an end to it). At 16, she begs her fairy godmother to do something about this situation and while her godmother tells Cimorene that her feelings on the matter are all just a phase that she'll grow out of, the King and Queen decide that it's time to just have Cimorene properly wed and out of their hair. So they travel to another kingdom on the pretense of attending a tournament and Cimorene discovers the engagement plot just in time. After trying to convince the prince Therandil (a handsome but dim fellow) to call off the engagement, Cimorene finds herself without any other recourse than to take off and follow the directions from a talking frog (not an enchanted prince, mind, just a frog who'd picked up enough chatter from enchanted princes) to the Mountains of Morning and some individuals who might be inclined to help her.

Those individuals turn out to be dragons and after explaining her situation, Cimorene finds herself taken on by the dragon Kazul as her captive princess. As Kazul's princess, Cimorene is responsible for some cooking, library organization, and treasure sorting, which all sounds much more interesting to Cimorene than any class she was assigned to take to be a regular princess. Kazul, thankfully, is a level-headed and pleasant dragon and so Cimorene finds herself quite happy with her situation... though it isn't long before the knights start showing up. Her parents did the proper and expected thing in this situation (naturally) after learning their daughter is in the custody of a dragon and offered up a reward of half the kingdom to the prince or knight who could rescue their daughter. Cimorene is a bit impressed that her parents would bother, but nonetheless, she shooes off a number of knights and princes before Therandil himself makes an appearance. Seeing as he feels he's particularly expected to rescue her, it takes quite a while for Cimorene to get rid of him, though he continues to pop back up and insist upon his duty. Meanwhile, Cimorene's own duties do not keep her from noticing a increasing number of wizards lurking about the Mountains of Morning. After one of Kazul's friends, the witch Morwen, suggests that a simple an unsuspicious sign (such as "Road Washed Out") will at least help to stem the flood of knights, Cimorene ventures out with her sign and encounters the wizard Zemenar who attempts to trick Cimorene into thinking that she needs rescuing after he makes part of her thin mountain pathway disappear. Cimorene does not fall for this, but does learn to be particularly suspicious of wizards and so reports her encounter to Kazul. Kazul explains to Cimorene that wizards are always a bit troublesome for dragons, as they cannot generate magic, but rather, they absorb it from magical places (like the Enchanted Forest) or creatures (like dragons). Currently, the wizards were arguing with the dragons about their access to the Caves of Fire and Night, a magical set of caves that contained a great number of secrets which the wizards wish to study further but the dragons control.

The plot between dragons and wizards thickens when Cimorene and her friend Alianora (also the princess of a dragon) are out gathering herbs and come upon a wizard gathering dragonsbane. Between the dragonsbane, trials for a new king of the dragons, and a stone prince discovered in the Caves of Fire and Night, Cimorene has her hands full if she wishes to thwart whatever plans are afoot for the wizards to gain the upper hand in their disputes with the dragons. By being a quick learner and using her wits, Cimorene succeeds in all her endeavors and proves that by seeking out a life that actually suits her, she can live "happily ever after" in her own fashion.

Cimorene is, indeed, a fantastic heroine. Her thirst for knowledge inspires one to be a bit of a Renaissance woman while her cleverness allows her to take advantage of the feather-brained princess stereotype more than once so she can weasel information out of wizards and dragons alike. Clearly, she is no dumb bunny. Cimorene essentially takes the advice given to princes -- that if you cannot solve something by alerting others, then you have to do it yourself -- and proves herself worthy of tackling any challenge, even thwarting the plans of a dragon to steal the throne and the plans of wizards to steal power. One of the great features of this book is the fact that Cimorene is allowed to stand on her own. She has the help of friends, yes, but she most certainly does not need a prince to assist her. Indeed, the two main princes in the book (Therandil and the stone prince) are very neatly matched off to other princesses by Cimorene's doing and her only fear at the end is that she won't be able to keep her job of being Kazul's princess. (As an adult reading this novel, one finds this a bit unsettling in and of itself... a woman's fear that her efficiency nullifies her position and she will not be granted a higher role, even though she's proved her competency.) There's a lovely blend between teamwork and leadership which illustrates that just as a female dragon can be King, so a princess can be a true leader.

The entire Enchanted Forest Chronicles is a charming series, featuring Cimorene and the family she comes to build. Cimorene, after proving her own abilities to do things without a man, does indeed have the chance to find a real partner in a match of equals. The fourth book in the series was actually written and published first -- the story of Cimorene's son -- and was revised in 1995 to better align with the other books and situate it as fourth in the series. Otherwise, we certainly get more of certain characters introduced in the first book -- namely, the wizards, Kazul, Morwen, and her cats. If you have a young reader in need of some fun fantasy, then I think boys and girls alike would enjoy this (though the series would seem to have particular appeal for girls). They're predictable in the sense that you know things will likely turn out well, but Wrede's skills as a storyteller ensure that you probably won't be able to guess the path that leads you there, and so you're guaranteed to be amused. Dealing with Dragons will always have a particular place of honor, as I think it's the best of the four, particularly when it comes to crafting a strong heroine with the strength to determine her own path in life. The other books become wonderful chapters in her life and in the lives of her family, but this will always feel like the one that started it all for me.

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