Lily Quench and the Hand of Manuelo
by Natalie Jane Prior
176 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
This is the sixth in a series of novels about the indomitable Lily Quench by Natalie Jane Prior, one of Australia's top children's writers. The first two novels were more or less stand-alone, but after that they became part of a story arc, which will conclude in the next and final volume.
Lily Quench is a hereditary dragonslayer who has formed an unlikely friendship with Queen Dragon, last of the great dragons, who munches scrap metal (hence the notion that dragons collect treasure: not goldlust just food. A smashed car will do just as well as a gold necklace).
In the first novel, we found Lily in the downtrodden kingdom of Ashby, currently under foreign rule, by the empire of the Black Mountains. But all was well, in the end. The long-lost King, Lionel, came into his own and the Empire was thrown out of Ashby. By the end of the second novel, the Black Count had fallen over a cliff and his son, Gordon, was flung into the past.
At the start of this story, Gordon has been gathering an army 200 years in the past and threatening to return, and Lily and Queen Dragon have been finding and sealing off the Eye Stones, gates into the past. But not all of them are gone and now the question is: has Gordon returned? Who, if not Gordon, is the mysterious Manuelo who has been inciting rebellion among the enslaved miners of the Black Mountains? What will happen to Ashby if he is Gordon and brings his army? When some miners escape to Ashby with news of the rebellion, Lily and Queen Dragon go to investigate, accompanied by Lionel and some other friends.
Lily is a brave, resourceful young woman, but when she's afraid, she's afraid and doesn't hesitate to admit it to himself, while trying to overcome her fear. This is not a bad message for young readers. As with all the best children's fiction, the adult characters have no problem working with a child. She may be only a young girl, but she's hereditary royal dragon "quencher" and King Lionel is satisfied to let her get on with her job. Nobody is going to tell her to stay home while the adults go into danger.
The world of these novels is a quirky mix of modern and mediaeval. Armor and swords mix comfortably with trucks, jackhammers and sports cars. There are no airplanes -- Lily travels by dragon -- but there are dragon-shaped flying vehicles -- dragonets -- used in the Black Mountains. No computers, either, or none that have been mentioned, but the world seems to manage fine without them. Author Natalie Jane Prior has a deep understanding of children and what they enjoy reading. The crazy mixture of technology and magic and a world which is both like and unlike our own is just the sort of thing young children can accept, without ever saying: "Hang on, hang on, isn't this a bit unlikely?" as adults would do. She doesn't write in-jokes for adults. This is a children's book and you soon get used to the zany mix.
The adventures have a lot of humor, though these aren't strictly humorous novels. The villain of the first novel -- with the unlikely name, for a villain, of Crystal Bright -- now the King's mother-in-law, is comic relief in this story. The Queen is having a baby and her mother is there to make a nuisance of herself, though she has her own surprises to reveal.
Children of eight to 12 should enjoy the series, but do try to read the series in order. | February 2005
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.