Long ago, there was lots of magic in the world. Now it has dwindled so far that once-great sorcerers are reduced to doing pest control.
But that's just the setting for "The Last Dragonslayer," a clever and bitingly satirical fantasy about the girl destined to kill the last dragon in the world. Jasper Fforde takes potshots at government, media, corporations and the like, but the heart of the story is in an ordinary girl who is faced with an impossible choice.
Teenage Jennifer Strange runs Kazam, a run-down employment agency for sorcerers (most of whom are mad, elderly or both). But then all the kingdom's precogs receive a vision: the last dragon in the world, Maltcassion, will die at noon the following Sunday. When he does, the Dragonpact will end and the vast Dragonlands will be up for grabs.
And much to Jennifer's surprise, she is destined to be the Last Dragonslayer. The problem is, she doesn't WANT to kill Maltcassion, since he's an intelligent, cultured creature.
Unfortunately, everybody else wants her to do it, including the greedy King (who wants to start a war with the neighboring nation-state). Jennifer is pelted with corporate sponsorships, media appearances and countless others. But as the deadline approaches, the pressure becomes deadly to Jennifer -- and she must learn the true nature of the Dragonpact and Big Magic.
"The Last Dragonslayer" is both a very simple and very complicated story. On one hand, it's a simple tale about a girl with a destiny that she doesn't want to fulfill. On the other hand, it's tangled in a bunch of complex subplots, with conspiracies, brewing wars, dwindling magic, and the occasional murderous traitor.
His imaginary world has the charming whimsy of a Diana Wynne Jones novel (ex: the Transient Moose), and there's plenty of Fforde's hilarious dialogue ("Why is it called Exhorbitus?" "Probably because it was very expensive"). But as the plot winds on, it grows darker and more sharply satirical (especially of politics and/or corporations), and Fforde's writing is all the richer for the dark edge.
The biggest problem is perhaps that while the climax is absolutely brilliant... the post-climax events are rushed. Major elements of the plot are wrapped up rather hastily.
As for Jennifer Strange, she's a very unlikely heroine, with no special magic or skills -- she's simply a kind, strong girl who is desperately trying to do the right thing. Her clear vision and strong will are what makes her special. And the story is peppered with other delightfully eccentric characters like the childish king, Lady Mawgon, Mother Zenobia, Moobin, and especially the irrepressible foundling Tiger Prawns.
And the Quarkbeast... oh, the Quarkbeast. It's one of those wonderful imaginary creatures Fforde excels at -- "one tenth Labrador, and the rest was a mix of velociraptor and kitchen blender."
"The Last Dragonslayer" kicks off a new fantasy trilogy for Jasper Fforde, and introduces us to a brilliant new heroine and a solid fantasy world. A do-not-miss for fantasy fans.