I enjoy fantasy when I can find my way into the narrative, but occasionally, the level of entry is too steep and I’m left behind as the story takes off. Then, every so often, a book like Dragon Brothers comes along and makes the barrier of entry feel like nothing. L. B. Lillibridge takes the very real societal problem of classism and blends elements of fantasy into it so well that I never lose the intentions of the novel or miss a beat in the story.
Dragon Brothers takes place within four realms: Fettpotem, Tref, Springfield, and Zunland. These are basically cities that have their own leadership that is then united by a dragon council. The leaders of each realm are dragon born—pretty much men with wings who are magically enabled. In this society, there are the magical (the Shaynen) and the non-magical (the Klor). If someone’s magic hasn’t revealed itself by a certain age then they’re forced to leave their education and learn a trade.
When a group of men don’t agree with the hierarchy they’re forced to live under, they cook up a plan to kidnap the two dragon princes Rhinen and Laeb. This action sets off a civil war between the realms, and only the two young dragon princes are able to empathize and see both sides of the conflict. Maybe through their sheer will, they’ll be able to mitigate the needed changes to save the people in all the realms.
Lillibridge does a fantastic job of wading into this magical world. There isn’t an exposition dump of all the needed information; we’re instead treated to applicable facts doled out within the context of the scenes. Within a few chapters I realized I knew a heck of a lot about this world and none of it felt forced upon me—and this proves a confidence of a steady writing hand.
The themes woven into the story are great examples for how we need to move forward in our own world. While at times it might feel a little preachy, it never goes over the top and ruins the appeal. The two princes are fighting for what they believe in, and even if that means respectfully debating their elders, it teaches us that not only is it possible to disagree, but deeply felt opinions can change long-held beliefs.
There are moments in Dragon Brothers that are too streamlined and lose some emotional investment in the process. A good example is when Rhinen learns how to blow fire. Sure, he’s under a stressful situation, but within moments of learning fire blowing is real, he’s able to do it himself. Rhinen doesn’t have to struggle to obtain this power—it’s simply there for his taking. On a larger scale, I wasn’t ever nervous during battles or seemingly dangerous missions. There weren’t moments of panic because everything continually works out in favor of the protagonists. This weakens moments of organic conflict and makes it feel like the characters are simply going through the motions.
There is a moment late in the book where Rhinen and Laeb’s mother, Ma’Beth, tries to convince a Klor woman to use her secret magic. An engaging debate blossoms between the two—what’s more important: preserving the past and the promises you’ve made, or ensuring a proper future. Both of these characters make convincing arguments and for the first time in Dragon Brothers, I truly didn’t know what was going to happen. Something was at stake, and I found myself pulled further into the story. I would’ve loved to feel more of that surprise.
While the characters in Dragon Brothers don’t always work for me, the overall narrative and themes Lillibridge has woven into the story creates a satisfying, forward-moving novel that many middle grade readers could relate to and enjoy. This novel shines a light on inequality and does a stellar job of making it understandable, relatable, and giving the reader moral boundaries for their own lives. It’s a book’s job to build empathy, and Dragon Brothers succeeds in doing just that.
Copyright © 2020 Lara Lillibridge
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