REVIEW: Susanna Kearsley’s NAMED OF THE DRAGON

Named_Of_DragonNamed Of The Dragon is another manifestation of Susanna Kearsley’s magic, a writerly witch’s pot of goodness, a virtuoso mix of gothic romance, amateur-sleuth mystery, and historical fiction mixed with legend and chronicle. On entertainment level alone, Named Of The Dragon will please – but, oh, there is so much more to think about and enjoy. Kearsley’s novel is signature and, with Simone St. James and Deanna Raybourn, the best in this hybrid genre the Ritas identified as novels “with strong romantic elements”. Atypical of the romance genre but typical of the hybrid, Kearsley’s novel has a first person narrator. Lynnette “Lyn” Ravenshaw is a London-based literary agent accompanying one of her writers, Bridget Cooper, to Christmas hols in rural Wales. This is no “child’s Christmas in Wales,” but children figure prominently in a narrative that alternates between Lyn’s vivid, anxiety-ridden, prophetic dreams of evil in a sterile wasteland where a lady in blue and blond, blue-eyed boy call for help and the waking world of temperamental authors amid village Christmas preparations. Lyn’s own loss of her newborn son five years ago fools the reader into thinking she is mourning and her dreams an expression of unresolved grief. But when she arrives in the Welsh town of Angle, with its rich history in Tudor England and connections to Merlin and Arthur, when she meets a fey young mother, Elen, who recognizes Lyn as her baby son’s, Stevie’s, savior and protector, when she meets the brooding playwright Gareth Morgan who figures in Elen’s life, and when she settles (Bridget’s friends) chez two brothers, James and Christopher Swift, who are also mysteriously involved with Elen and Stevie, her dreams take on dangerous, waking-world proportions.

Kearsley’s novels are a wonderful combination of the mundane world and archetypal, or mythical one. Therein lies their power and readers’ fascination for them: the notion that our lives are intertwined with what came before us, historically, metaphorically, and prophetically in what legends and myths tell us will come to pass. Lyn Ravenshaw is a 20th century career woman: she massages authorial egos and signs up-and-coming literary stars for her agency. She attends cocktail parties, rides the tube, and cleans her apartment. On an archetypal level, however, she is the heroine who undergoes trials to score a moral victory over evil antagonists, supernatural and real. In triumphing over those who would hurt the child Stevie, who is both rambunctious 20th century baby and divine, she is healed of the psychic wound of losing her own. Moreover, she heals the wounded hero-knight. She dissipates darkness and is freed of her own. She is rewarded with the knight’s eternal love and fidelity … and, to let in some of that mundane world, a nice sparkly ring, Miss Bates hopes. One of Kearsley’s most likable characters, the Swift farm keeper, Owen, speaks of this interweaving of real and myth when he explains something of Stevie’s mother Elen to Lyn: ” ‘Elen knows what’s real,’ he told me, certain. ‘She’s just inherited her mother’s way of seeing things, the Celtic way, that sees the past and present and future worlds all blended in ours.’ ” In Owen’s words, Kearsley tells us something of her own narrative impulse.

In Named Of The Dragon, Kearsley expresses this blending of “past and present and future” in Lyn’s powerful dreams. A dream sequence opens the novel (and more are interspersed throughout as we near the heart of the mystery of Stevie and Elen and Lyn’s role in their lives, as well as Bridget’s, James’, Christopher’s, and Gareth’s):

The dream came, as it always did, just before dawn. I was standing alone at the edge of a river that wound through a valley so lush and so green that the air seemed alive. The warble of songbirds rang over the treetops from branches bent low with the weight of ripe fruit, and everywhere the flowers grew, more vivid and fragrant than any flowers I had ever seen before. Their fragrance filled me with an incredible thirst, and kneeling on the river bank I cupped my hands into the chill running water and lifted them dripping, preparing to drink.

A shadow swept over me, blocking the sun. Beside me the grass gave a rustle and parted, and out came a serpent, quite withered and small. It slipped down the riverbank into the water and opened its mouth, and as I knelt watching the serpent swallow the river, and the flowers shriveled and died and the trees turned to flame, and the songbirds to ravens, and everywhere the green of the valley vanished and the world became a wasteland underneath a frozen sky, and the riverbed a hard road winding through it. And the serpent, grown heavy and large, slithered off as the ravens rose thick in a chattering cloud that turned day into night, and I found myself walking beneath a pale moon through a wasteland.

Imagery familiar to anyone with knowledge of the Bible, Keats’ “Belle Dame Sans Merci,” or Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” Kearsley too writes about a world gone awry, a world needing setting aright by good people. Lyn is our core protagonist, a woman of sorrows, who saves the child when his mother lies helpless, restores the wasteland to freshness and, in this journey, heals herself, laying ghosts to rest and opening to the possibility of hope and joy. Like Mary Stewart’s heroines, like St. James’, Kearsley’s are driven by the need to know, understand, uncover, and redress wrong by bringing right to injustice. The heroine puts things right on her own; the hero hovers, sometimes offering a stalwart arm, but the heroine’s darkest moment is fought and suffered alone. Her final recognition, however, comes from the hero, who tells her that the world is healed, as he is, by “a woman of pure heart.” Lyn is a wonderful heroine, without bitterness, or rancor, strong and loving, giving of herself to Stevie and Elen, even though her own pain and loss are enormous.

Many are Kearsley’s Dragon‘s rewards: not least of which are Arthurian legend, Tudor history, a satire on writers’ pettiness and genius, the beauty of Wales and its crumbling towers, and the wondrous promise of “unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given” in every child. Miss Bates wishes she’d read Named Of The Dragon leisurely-like during her Christmas hols instead of staying up last night to finish it. Whenever you read it, dear reader, however, you’re going to love it. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Named Of The Dragon, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.

Susanna Kearsley’s Named Of The Dragon was originally published in Great Britain by Victor Gollancz in 1998, but reissued by Sourcebooks Landmark on October 6th, 2015 (based on the 2013 UK paperback edition published by Allison and Busby). You may find it at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful for an e-ARC from Sourcebooks, via Netgalley.

10 thoughts on “REVIEW: Susanna Kearsley’s NAMED OF THE DRAGON

  1. I remember reading this in the mmpb US edition in late 1999. Having loved ‘Shadowy Horses so much, I grabbed this right up (and then Season of Storms) and was then there was nothing! For years! Until Winter Sea came out.
    I have a special fondness for Kearsley’s modern gothics–so very Mary Stewart-ish. I enjoy watching a writer’s style and skill evolve, so it is fun to go back and re-read her older books and look for what and where she has changed.
    A big thank you to Source Books for the reprint (my previous copy has long disappeared). A trip down memory lane with a good book by a favorite author is a fine way to pass the time while hoping/waiting for a new offering.
    Thank you for the lovely and very insightful review. Now I will have more to look forward to when I re-read it than just a visit with an old friend.
    (I often remark that I don’t really have a TBR stack–what I have is an absolute Everest of a To Be Re-Read stack!)

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    • I think this is a book-friend you will love revisiting. I was quite touched and awed by this novel: it’s very rich. I didn’t really go beyond the tip of its iceberg. It definitely made me remember my readings of The Golden Bough, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, and, of course, my beloved Northrop Frye. It is, yes, in turn, reminiscent of Mary Stewart, whom I adore too! Thank you for the generous words about my review; they were my inspiration. It was good to think in those terms again and Kearsley certainly inspired it.

      The Winter Sea was my first Kearsley, thanks to its nomination for Romantic Novel of the Year. And I loved it. I’m so happy my Mount Everest of a TBR includes The Shadowy Horses: I’m “saving them” for my bath-tub-reading!

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  2. heh – The Winter Sea was my first Kearsley as well! I had unsuccessfully bounced out of a Barbara Erskine :/ and it was one of those – if you liked her, you’ll love this recs…Just because of that I left it languishing in my TBR for yonks. (Don’t publishers know the inherent dangers in those kinds of recommendations??)

    But it was NOTHING like Erskine – I LOVED it – and had to go back and read all the rest. Kearsley does those dual timeline/timeslip aspects so well doesn’t she? Like Named of The Dragon – they are all so atmospheric and subcurrents that run through them? I sobbed over The Rose Garden. And Marianna. And The Shadowy Horses…? They’re all just so dang good.

    Now if only she had the output of Ms Stewart… 😉

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    • I know dammit … write faster! Kearsley is very meticulous, very careful researcher. The more I think about this book, the better I like it: the interweaving of the mythic and mundane is just so perfectly, lyrically done. I have Marianna and The Shadowy Horses in the TBR and I’m hoarding them for some really terrible week. But I might crack and read The Shadowy Horses … well, because Scotland and Eagle of the Ninth and all that … for my bathtubreading!! I’m tickled PINK you like them too!

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