Book Review: The Dragon's Apprentice: The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica, Book 5
Publication Date: October 19, 2010
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
· James A. Owen
by R.J. Carter
Published: December 22, 2010
The adventures of the Caretakers of the Imaginarium Geographica -- JRR Tolkein, CS Lewis, and Charles Williams -- continue in James A. Owen's fifth book of the information-packed young adult series.
For those out of the loop, the Imaginarium Geographica is an atlas of maps that detail places you won't find here in the mundane world. They are islands that exist beyond the frontier, off the edge of the maps, squarely in "Here, There Be Dragons" territory. For centuries, there have been caretakers of the Geographica, adding their own notes to it, protecting its existence as well as the existence of the Archipeligo of Dreams. This particular sequence of chapters just happens to occur during the life spans of the three noted authors mentioned, but that doesn't stop the adventures from spanning the millennia.
It's now been a number of years since the authors have been able to revisit Tamerlane House and the Archipeligo, having had to wait for the events of World War II to reach the rightful conclusion (as they would reflect the time-travel adventures of the last novel) lest they interfere with fate. With victory declared by the allies, the former caretakers residing at Poe's temporally hidden clubhouse are eager to rejoin their friends. Alas, a slip-up in the time stream allows tragedy to befall our heroes before they can rightfully return: Charles Williams has died, allowing his apprentice, Fred (a talking badger from Paralon) to become caretaker in his stead.
There's not much time to mourn, however, as the unexplained shift in the time stream causes time in the Archipeligo to synchronize itself with time in the mundane world, thrusting it forward thousands of years and effectively cutting off our heroes from all their friends -- and, in some cases, family -- perhaps permanently, as the Archipeligo becomes a wartorn wasteland, sparsely populated and barely existing. The Grail Child, Rose Dyson, has an inkling of what needs to be done, following an unexpected visit to her quarters by one of the Morgaine, but the advice is as enigmatic as any ever offered by the three-who-are-one: she must seek out the Dragon's Apprentice to unravel the clues set before her. But the dragons are all gone, including the great Samaranth, and none of them ever took an apprentice in all of recorded history.
Further complicating issues is the sudden and inexplicable failure of the Anabasis machines -- devices used by Caretakers to travel in time and space in order to perform their duties. With the devices out of commission, Bert and Verne take Jack and John into another level of Tamerlane House, wherein are stored a number of other methods used over the years for time travel. It's a fun scene, which gives a rare nod to a number of pop culture icons:
The repository was by far the largest room the companions had seen within Tamerlane House, with the sole exception of the Trophy Hall that Poe kept in the basement. It contained, among other things, a stuffed tyrannosaurus rex, a giant American penny, and both halves of the Titanic -- from which, Poe had claimed, they had gotten all the dinnerware used at Tamerlane House. John kept meaning to turn one of the plates over to check for the maker's insignia, but always forgot until after the tables had been cleared.
All the various time travel devices used by Verne and Bert were stored in the repository, Poe explained, including the ones that had never quite worked as they were meant to. There was one that resembled a blue police box from London -- "Stolen by a doctor with delusions of grandeur," said Poe -- one that was simply a large, transparent sphere -- "Created by a scientist with green skin and too much ego," said Verne -- and one that was rather ordinary by comparison.
"This one looks like an automobile," John said admiringly, "with wings."
"The doors open that way for a reason," Verne explained, "we just never figured out what it was. The inventor of this particular model tried integrating his designs into a car, an airplane, and even a steam engine train. He was running a crackpot laboratory in the Arizona desert, and he never realized that it was not his inventions themselves, but his proximity to some sort of temporal fluctuation in the local topography, that allowed them to work."
"What happened to him?" asked Jack.
"He'd get the machines up to one hundred and six miles per hour," said Bert, "and then he'd run out of fuel and promptly get arrested by whatever constabulary had been chasing him. The sad part was that Jules figured out if he'd just gone two miles an hour faster, he'd likely have been successful in his attempt."
"And this one?" asked John. "It looks like a treadmill."
"The Cosmic Treadmill, if you please," sniffed da Vinci. "It may have never operated as I planned it to, but the theory behind it is sound."
"Only if you can find someone who is capable of running one hundred eight miles per hour," said Bert.
"It's hardly my fault that human potential has not yet risen to match my invention," da Vinci replied. "At any rate, I'm not going to stand around here just to be insulted. I'm going back to my portrait."
He stormed off in a huff, and Bert flipped open a book to make a note. "Insult the treadmill, da Vinci leaves the room," he murmured, clicking his tongue as he finished and snapped the book shut. "Good to remember. He's going to drive me up a wall someday."
I half-exected to find Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine somewhere in the accompanying illustration.
Of course, the obvious course of action to find out what is wrong with the special silver pocket watches the Caretakers carry is to take them back to the Watchmaker himself, introducing yet another enigmatic eternal to the growing cast of characters. I haven't looked at any annotations for this book (and folks like Jess Nevins and Leslie S. Klinger would certainly have a field day making one -- or an aneurism, it's hard to say which), but to this reviewer, the Watchmaker -- with his surrounding of asynchronously ticking clocks and mirrors that reflect winged centaurs and praying mantis profiles -- can be none other than H.P. Lovecraft's Randolph Carter. Seeing as how we've already met Twain's Hank Morgan and the future astronaut of C.S. Lewis's Perelandra series, Alvin Ransom, it stands to reason other unique protagonists might make appearances in the series, and Lovecraft's elder gods have already made a cameo earlier in the adventure. (I'm still awaiting to see where Lewis Carroll will pop up in the series, seeing as how the Cheshire Cat -- Grimalkin -- has already made an appearance, not to mention a surprising contribution in this novel).
If there's a drawback to this installment, it's that it's starting to get a bit crowded with characters. Starting out with Tolkien, Lewis and Williams as the three main protagonists, with Wells as their mentor, was a novel concept. Adding a hierarchy with Verne and Poe gave the series depth. But now that we have to also keep track of Shakespeare, Twain, Burton, Doyle, Houdini, da Vinci, Byron, Bacon, Defoe and a number of others who have managed to find a post-life life via tulpas or magical portraits, it can sometimes be unweildy -- particular during meals at Tamerlane House, an exercise in "The x Most Famous People You'd Like to Have to Dinner," where the conversations tread daringly close to ponderous exposition. And with The Dragons Apprentice we expand beyond the Caretakers and the Cartographic Society to include a new bastion of players -- Verne's Mystorians, the first of which we meet is none other than Benjamin Franklin himself as our wandering heroes find themselves stuck in the only place in the past to which they could travel, where they must succeed in finding a new way to travel in time in order to truly begin waging warfare against a new and primordially ancient enemy.
Each installment of the Chronicles is densely packed with literary information. And while Owen takes advantage of this novel to introduce some of his own creations from a previous work, there are still enough allusions and multiple-layered personas and mythologies, that I imagine even Joseph Campbell himself might close out a chapter with a half-whispered, "Daaaaamn." The Dragon's Apprentice feels more like bridge-building than progression, falling as it does in the midst of a series, but if past is prologue, it's bound to be an important cornerstone for some of the harrowing literary adventures yet to come.