Johan is a young boy living in one of the farming villages of the small country of Fandora. One day he steals a glider designed by his friend, the reclusive inventor Amsel. He is killed mysteriously, but his father Jondalrun believes the culprit to be Simbala, the wealthy country across the water, ruled by the former miner, Hawkwind (not Michael Moorcock’s backing band). Jondalrun leads his country to declare war upon the Simbalese. Meanwhile, Amsel has decided that he must discover the truth of what happened to Johan and journeys further than he ever dreamed in order to discover the truth.
Byron Preiss was a publisher of many varied educational and genre-related books during his career. J. Michael Reeves is a bestselling author of more books than I can think of, while Joseph Zucker is an illustrator with a back catalogue of projects that would make many other artists insanely jealous.
First things first: I love this book to pieces. I’ve owned two copies of this: a mass-market paperback I first read when I was 14; and a first edition I found in a second-hand bookstore when I was 35. It is a gorgeous object to own, both in its intrinsic value as a book and as a story that has moved me for over thirty years.
As a story it moves slowly, almost stately: you are nearly halfway through the story before the action really kicks in. But the build-up is worth it. There are countless scenes of the two nations preparing for war, of events gaining momentum, of characters being shown pathways to choose. Then it just doesn’t stop until you reach the conclusion. As an epic it seems quite small compared to the multi-volume doorstops we are accustomed to today but the ‘70s were a quieter time in publishing and fantasy wasn’t quite the publishing juggernaut it would become in the next decade, so many stories were over and done with in the course of a single tome. Which, for this reader at least, can be a very good thing. Also, this book owes a considerable artistic debt to the works of J. R. R. Tolkien but it is not a slavish clone, more that you can still make out the serial numbers under the filing (however, these similarities come largely from Mr Zucker’s illustrations: if you ignore those (yeah, just try!) you might have a different experience because there are a lot of genuinely original ideas on display here). If complete originality is what you desire, this might not be for you, but if you like a book that wears its heart on its sleeve, feel free to set aside a few hours or days for a top tale.
The authors use their pages wisely and give us a vivid portrait of two peace-loving countries going to war with one another. Plus it has DRAGONS! Or rather, a single dragon and some lesser creatures known as coldrakes, led by the mysterious Darkling. Interestingly, despite being a story about two countries going to war, there is not a single character that you could identify as being a genuine villain: Princess Evirae could be classed as one but she is really only a schemer, plotting to keep Simbala in the hands of her Family. And she has a couple of moments where you are totally sympathetic to her and what she represents.
But I have barely mentioned the illustrations! Many times in books, I have found myself in violent disagreement with an illustration or cover picture, wondering the artist and I have read the same text, or wondering why an illustrator was chosen that seemed to completely disagree with everything the author was trying to achieve. However, Mr Zucker’s pictures are gorgeous, evoking memories of Tenniel and Sendak. They capture scenes and characters perfectly, supplementing the story in a way that is very rare in literature. My only complaints about them (aside from those reservations voiced in an earlier paragraph) would be that some of them were reproduced far too faintly for the book, making them a little too hard to see. And there are others that you almost have to bend the spine of the book to see, which is an anathema for some of us!
Finally, just read it. There’s a lot to enjoy here and the absence of sequels, save for a computer game released a few years after the first publication, mean that this is a solitary gem waiting to be rediscovered.
You can purchase Dragonworld here: https://www.amazon.com/Dragonworld-Byron-Preiss/dp/1596872330