Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede

Cimorene, youngest daughter of the King of Linderwall, hates being a princess. Linderwall is too tranquil, court protocol is too restrictive, and worst of all, unlike her older sisters, Cimorene is not only black-haired rather than the preferred blonde as [insert shopworn metaphor] princesses abounding in the area, she is as tall as many of the princes who would pay suit to her, meaning that she is too tall to peep entrancingly UP at them through her lashes.

Her parents attempt to do right by her, arranging the best tutelage in all the skills necessary for a young woman of her stature in society: embroidery, dancing, drawing and etiquette in all its nuances for court, up to and including how loudly a princess may scream when abducted by giants, but to no avail. Shockingly, Cimorene attempts to arrange her own lessons in subjects which she finds more interesting–fencing, magic, economics, Latin, cooking and juggling with appropriate members of the family’s court, only to be informed at every turn that this is not proper behavior. At last, in frustration, she calls upon her fairy godmother, but this only leads to a kindly lecture about what’s properly done from the godmother and an ‘invitation’ accompany her parents to a joust in the neighboring kingdom…where she finds out that she’s to be betrothed to the prince of Sathem-by-the-mountains, Therandil.

Instead, she takes the advice of the frog living in the castle lilypond, and runs away to become a dragon’s princess. While this position is more commonly filled via abduction, the somewhat unconventional dragon Kazul accepts Cimorene, despite the voluntary nature of her servitude, and Cimorene sets to cooking, cleaning, and cataloguing the Latin scrolls in her dragon’s library. Things go well, aside from the stream of knights and princes who would insist on attempting to rescue Cimorene, despite her insistence that she doesn’t need rescuing. (The disapproval of two of the neighboring dragons’ princesses matters little, as she gets on well with the third, Woraug’s Alianora1.)

It becomes increasingly obvious that the wizards are up to something. As a rule, the dragon kingdom and the Society of Wizards have an agreement to stay out of one another’s territories, and abide by that. Zemenar, head of the Society, and his son Antorell come sniffing about Kazul’s cave, but it is not clear what the wizards’ plan is until Cimorene and Alianora discover Antorell picking a blue flower unfamiliar to them…which turns out to be dragons bane. Kazul identifies the plant but herself gets a whiff of it, rendering her ill enough to be unable to warn King Tokoz…who is himself poisoned by dragonsbane in his Turkish coffee the next morning.

The dragons set about selecting a new king through the usual competition: carry Colin’s Stone from the Ford of Whispering Snakes to the Whispering Mountain. Only the successful candidate will be able to carry the stone that distance without vibrating. Unfortunately, the wizards have plotted to throw the competition by ensorcelling the stone as their favorite, Woraug, is carrying it. Fortunately, Alianora and Cimorene, aided by the Stone Prince2 put paid to the wizards plotting in the shrubbery in a thoroughly traditional method.

The book ends happily for those who deserve it, with Kazul now king of the dragons, Cimorene still her princess, Alianora betrothed to the Stone Prince and Morwen off in search of a “less sloppy” way of dealing with wizards…and we’re off to the sequels.

The book mocks a number of the standard fairy tale tropes—the golden-haired princess, the brave knight, and so on. Specifically, there are a number of feminist touches I appreciate—aside from the basic one of Cimorene’s strong-willed determination to buck her own society’s strictures, the dragons themselves have a few twists. For one, “King of the Dragons” and “Queen of the Dragons” are job titles, not a reference to the holder’s gender. Alianora, like Cimorene, also flies in the face of many fairy tale tropes: the evil fairy godmother, necessarily invited to Alianora’s christening, had too much fun at the festivities to properly curse the infant, she cannot spin straw into gold but only linen, the fairy crone grateful for a morsel of cheese and bread granted her good teeth rather than diamonds and roses spilling from her mouth, and she broke one of the glass slippers she was to wear to her ball Cimorene, the pragmatic supportive friend, reassures her that glass slippers are more appropriate for merchants’ daughters and as for the diamonds and roses…what if you talked in your sleep?)

Published twenty-two years ago, there are now (thank heaven!) a number of newer additions to the subset of ‘feminist’ science fiction, though this one is still, I hope, an enjoyable one. Certainly it’s a lighter, more humorous addition to the genre, without much in the way of violence; while books such as Hunger Games and Girl of Fire and Thorns have garnered no more attention than they deserve, they’re not particularly ‘gentle reads’ and might not be appropriate for younger or nightmare-prone kids. Coraline might be a good answer to “what do I read next?”, though it’s a bit darker. Oddly, The Wednesdays might also be another good option, if you like humor in your books.

1a princess not unlike Cimorene in personality,
2further explained in a subplot I’ve left out for brevity


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