High fantasy, even when taken in the vein of constituting a world entirely different from our own, can be intimidating. The genre often invokes images of epics such as King Arthur and the Knights of the Round table, or complicated worlds and cultures that take serious concentration to unravel. Rarely does high fantasy come across as easy to capture or easy to read. The Pygmy Dragon is an epic story that is both vastly different from our own world and yet strangely familiar.
Pip, a moniker that is a much-shortened version of her Pygmy tribal name, is a plucky young protagonist who begins the story in tragic, harsh circumstances. These circumstances never completely take her spirit, however, and Pip comes to life almost as soon as the novel begins. Her journey from her home village to a zoo and finally to the Dragon Rider Academy, where she faces physical as well as mental challenges on her path to become a Dragon Rider.
Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Pip’s journey is never ordinary, but the extraordinary twists and turns that the narrative takes are always believable because of Secchia’s characters. The characters’ reactions read as they would in our world: shock, delight, contempt, even jealousy. There is infighting and rivalry, as well as a sort of bonding and friendship that only occur under extreme pressure. The dragons, too, are all afforded their own particular set of characteristics. They are a noble and terribly proud race, as fantasy usually designates them, but each dragon has their own personality, often eschewing the stereotypical temperament of their “type.”
The characters are as nuanced as those found in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and indeed The Pygmy Dragon brings to mind much about the later Harry Potter novels that I enjoyed: dark and magical circumstances mingled with the typical teenage angst and longings, a serious and intense struggle with opposing forces that has real costs and real consequences. Friends band together to support a protagonist who is trying to remain as true to herself as possible, even as she is unsure what form that self make take. There is real humor, snarky comments and snide dialogue and an abundance of puns, and moments that truly delight. The Pygmy Dragon is a serious novel about real issues – self-identity, belonging, love and friendship – but it is not a novel that takes itself too seriously. It is as fun to read as it is thrilling.
High fantasy is characterized not only by epic characters and story, but by the creation of a world separate from our own. Secchia creates a geography, a lore, and a thousand cultures that are truly unique. While some customs of certain cultures may draw from real-world counterparts, it never derives from the story. I particularly admire Secchia’s commitment to telling a story where the majority of characters are coded as people of color and their cultures are described in respectful, matter-of-fact ways. Yaethi, while described in a Nordic fashion, dresses modestly and wears her hair covered at all times. Pip’s own culture is also respected, though the Pygmy penchant for going without clothes confuses and scandalizes her instructors, classmates, and friends during her first few weeks at the Academy. Dragon culture is also explained well, so that readers get a sense of how interacting with magical, renown creatures would actually play out.
The floral and fauna that make up the Island-World are described minutely, and the overall social aspects of Pip’s world are just as methodological. There are scholars who study supposedly “primitive” cultures, whose people are all-too-often colonized or kidnapped and sold as slaves or attractions. The slang found in Island standard, the main language spoken across the Island-World, relies heavily on expressions dealing with the Islands themselves or the Dragons: “Dragon-swift” for quickly, or “by the Islands!” as an exclamation of surprise or excitement. This devotion to specific detail actually makes The Pygmy Dragon extremely relatable to readers, as it reflects our world just enough to make things familiar.
Pip’s journey is not only about riding and fighting with Dragons, training with weapons, or learning complex lore. She pursues an education just as much for herself as she does to better her life and to improve her circumstances. Pip stands up for what she believes in, even to the point of physically fighting for it. She protects others with ferocity but also seeks to understand those who antagonize her. Pip is also flawed: she’s clumsy in her new environment, she is mischievous and teasing, and sometimes she doesn’t realize the impact she has on others and her own surroundings. Still, Pip is a wonderful character for readers to interact with, and an excellent representation of what women-of-color can be in fantasy.
The Pygmy Dragon is an excellent showcase of how accessible fantasy novels can be, while still retaining their magic and allure. I recommend this novel to any fans of dragons, adventure, and coming-of-age stories. It has quickly become a favorite of my own, and I look forward to joining Pip for another adventure in Marc Secchia’s sequel, The Onyx Dragon.