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Published: 7th January 2021, Chicken House
Despite studying history at university and reading lots of adult historical fiction, when it comes to historical novels for children I don't feel like I've covered a lot of ground. There's the wonderful novels by Emma Carroll, The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr, The Water's Daughter by Michelle Lovric and The Vanishing Trick by Jenni Spangler but this is definitely a genre I'd like to read more of with my little readers.
Cue Darwin's Dragons, a stunning middle grade novel, where these mythical creatures are woven into the fabric of real historical fact. This is a history and a science lesson with an extraordinary magical twist- where imagination takes flight in the form of golden, fire-breathing creatures and where the reader can walk in the footprints of one of the most famous scientists ever known.
When Syms Covington, assistant to Charles Darwin, falls overboard in a storm around the Galapagos, he is washed ashore on an unexplored volcanic island. There he lays eyes on a species no one knows exists. Soon, it's not only Covington's survival that hangs in the balance but how far will he go to keep these creatures safe?
This tale is a rich tapestry of storytelling. It sews fact and fiction together in a seamlessly written plot that involves volcanic eruptions, dragon's eggs, a fiddle and Queen Victoria. Covington and Darwin are strong and likeable characters with an interesting master/servant dynamic but, for me, it is the lizard, Farthing, that steals the show in terms of character. Sharply intelligent, lively and adorable, she is definitely the teacher of this lesson- allowing the reader and Covington to uncover surprise after surprise and to discover more and more about this magical species.
Despite being grounded in fact, this story was highly unpredictable, with a brilliant twist. It followed the journey and the work of Charles Darwin more closely than I'd anticipated, giving it a feeling of deep authenticity. There are strong themes of ecology, friendship, loyalty balanced with the exploration of right and wrong. I particularly loved what Queen Victoria brought to the plot and it was lovely to see her in her younger years.
The ending, although leaving much to the imagination, was satisfying and moving. Covington's motivations and decisions shone as brightly as Farthing's eyes and the dragon's scales. So many aspects of this tale are fascinating that it will no doubt encourage readers, young and old, to want to find out more about the history, the science or the people of this time. Highly original and cleverly constructed, this novel is thrilling, adventurous, dangerous, compelling and truly beautiful.
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