Author: Vivian Vande Velde
Genre: Fantasy, Historical, Young Adult
Publication date: First published in 1992
Hardcover: 196 pages
Fifteen-year-old Alys is not a witch. But that doesn’t matter–the villagers think she is and have staked her out on a hillside as a sacrifice to the local dragon.
It’s late, it’s cold, and it’s raining, and Alys can think of only one thing–revenge. But first she’s got to escape, and even if she does, how can one girl possibly take on an entire town alone?
Then the dragon arrives–a dragon that could quite possibly be the perfect ally. . . .
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I saw this book listed at a recent EW article as an unmissable YA novel. It caught my attention.
Oh book, why you make me so torn?
I first heard about Dragon’s Bait through this piece on Entertainment Weekly about unmissable teen reads. And because it was an older title and because the Publishers Weekly review (which I sought after I read the EW article) said it is a “thoughtful mainstream fantasy with a gently feminist slant”, I decided I needed to read it soon.
Basically, the story follows a young girl, fifteen-year-old Alys, as she is accused of being a witch by her neighbours and summarily convicted in an unfair trial by the visiting Inquisitor. She loses everything and worst of all, Alys’ sick father dies in front of her eyes as she is dragged away to be sacrificed to the local dragon.
Alys thinks she is all but dead when, to her surprise, the dragon – who shape-shifts into a hot young man (obviously) called Selendrile– does not kill her. Instead, he listens to her story and offers to help her to avenge herself.
And you know, I can totally see where both EW and PW are coming from but at the same time…no, not really?
On the one hand we have a quick story with a fairytale vibe. Plus, Alys is a great heroine. Her voice is engaging, ironic and questioning. Her father has been teaching her to work on his workshop against the mores of their time where women don’t actually work at all and she loves the feeling of being useful.
Then when she is taken to be sacrificed to the dragon, she wonders why is it that only maidens are always the ones to be sacrificed? And the dragon-boy brings to her attention that dragons don’t actually make those demands at all as they couldn’t care less who they eat. Those choices are made by the men who rule the towns and who perceive maidens (young unmarried girls with no profession) as worthless. This could actually be taken as really cool meta-textual observation about the way we have chosen to write these stories about dragons and maidens over time.
On the other hand, there is very little character development when it comes to the secondary characters, very little thought about character-motivation and a confusing world-building that is both historical and fantastical but doesn’t really care about pesky historical details or in presenting a carefully constructed fantasy world.
Not to mention that there is a fairly heavy-handed, shallow moral lesson about revenge and how bad it is. And if yes, Alys’ arc is interesting in the way that allows Alys to take control of her own acts by becoming less and less reliant on the dragon’s help and coming up with her own plans, it is also incredibly frustrating how it plays out. Because in the end, Alys is still rescued by dragon-boy after deciding that her feelings of revenge are so bad she decides that the right course of action is to take the blame for EVERYTHING bad that has EVER happened in the village and I am like: WHY. It is such an out-of-character thing to do, all the more so because after she is rescued, those guilty feelings are never addressed again?
And then we have the romance between Alys and Selendrile. And at first it is great to see addressed the inevitable allure of the not-so-human, dark, older hot guy at the same time that showed Alys mistrusting him and fearing him for the monster that he is. And for the greatest part of the novel – till the very end – Alys is very unsure about his true feelings and fears he will EAT/KILL HER eventually. But then they end up together anyway in the most abrupt ending of ALL TIMES in which Alys ends up FOLLOWING him because she has NO OTHER CHOICE, even though he possibly EATS PEOPLE and doesn’t really show his emotions toward her except when it comes to mocking her humanity. He is very good at THAT.
And I am like: WHAT JUST HAPPENED?
And in a way, this is a really interesting choice and it points out to a darkness and to the fact that Alys wants to be with this creature but because it is so abrupt, this choice goes unquestioned and unchallenged for its clearly problematic aspects.
Because this was published 20 years ago, maybe it is worth reading Dragon’s Bait as a historical piece of YA fiction to see how far YA has come in terms of writing and character development but also how little it has changed in terms of its most obvious problematic romantic tropes?
Yeah, I will go with that.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
Her first inclination was to hope the dragon hadn’t seen the torches and that she’d have time to run under cover of the nearby trees…
Then she realized the dragon hadn’t seen her, and that if she stayed still for a few moments longer, she was free. But she was soaked to the skin and cold, and she hadn’t eaten anything since early morning, and she was an orphan with nowhere, absolutely nowhere, to go. And she remembered the wolves.
Her choices, as she saw them, were to die quick or to die slow.
She chose quick.
Standing, she flung a rock with all her might. “You stupid dragon!” she screamed. “Come and get me!”
Rating: I really do not know how to rate this. It is a readable, enjoyable, quick read but one that is also too shallow and problematic for me to recommend without reservations.
Reading Next: Passion Blue by Victoria Strauss
Buy the Book: (click on the links to purchase)
AndreaNovember 9, 2012 at 5:39 am
I had similar problems with the book, Ana. A “revenge is bad” story needs a balance of justice being served against those who _tried to murder_ the protagonist in the first place (not to mention killing her father via stress).
And the romance just didn’t come off for me. I think the point of Selendrine was meant to be that he didn’t have human morals – that he would take on the morality Alys projected on him. He literally did everything she wanted (or thought she wanted) him to.
Which, uh, means that when Alys decided she was in love with him, he did that too. Or, at least, that’s how it read to me.
AnaNovember 9, 2012 at 5:44 am
Andrea – I am not sure if I agree that a “revenge is bad” story needs a balance of justice being served per se as long as this lack-of-justice is shown as something that is as bad as the revenge. And I don’t think the story did this at all either.
Interesting what you have to say about Selendrine and it is a good interpretation. I didn’t take it as far as that, I thought he was supposed to be “mysteriously alluring” character. In any case neither interpretation is exactly romantic, is it?
Linda WNovember 9, 2012 at 6:33 am
You just pointed out what I found disappointing about the story. I picked it up several years ago, because I loved the premise. But as I kept reading, I also had that “What just happened?” feeling.
Nikki @ Foil the PlotNovember 9, 2012 at 10:51 am
It sounds to me like what was supposed to be a semi-feminist book ended up being just another Twilight-esque, female-who-cant-think-for-herself-and-vies-for-the-affections-of-a-monster story. Why does a woman ALWAYS need a man in these books? Seriously? WTF? I thought we’d come farther than that.
I do like the concept of the monster who doesn’t find his humanity and can’t relate to the human but what I don’t like is that the protagonist would actually fall for it in the end. Things can’t, er shouldn’t, always be tied up in a pretty little bow. Sometimes the twist the story needs is that the girl realizes that she doesn’t need a man (albeit a hot one) to find her own way. That, I feel, would make for a much stronger and satisfying end. Such a shame.
MaryKNovember 9, 2012 at 11:35 am
Yeah, this: “there is a fairly heavy-handed, shallow moral lesson about revenge and how bad it is.” This is the reason I didn’t read YA when I was YA. They seemed to all be thinly veiled moral tales. I mean, come on, if you’re going to write a moral tale do me the courtesy of weaving it into the story organically so I don’t keep tripping over it.
AoifeNovember 9, 2012 at 12:10 pm
I read this when it was first published, and had ambivalent feelings about it then for exactly some of the reasons you have articulated. I’m always surprised when it is cited as being a classic. However, I think it’s worthwhile to remember that at the time it was fairly original, since it had a heroine who fought back, and even the ambiguous choice she makes in the end (going with Selendrile, who is clearly not a Good Person however attractive he might be) was groundbreaking. In the last few years we’ve seen some of the themes raised in Dragon’s Bait explored in a much more complete and thoughtful fashion, but this was 1992, and while it may not have held up well over time, an unsettling or ambiguous ending was unusual in youth literature 20 years ago.
AliceNovember 9, 2012 at 1:32 pm
Oh my goodness, I didn’t know this was now considered a classic. I actually read this book when it first came out and absolutely adored (large parts of) it.
One thing I agree with was the weird ‘romance’ part. Even while reading it back then I never thought there was a romantic element between Alys and Selendrile up until the end when she kissed him. I was seriously like “what just happened?!” read that section several more times to be sure I wasn’t making it up and just finished off the book. I mean, why would she kiss him as reassurance? And right after she saved him, he just flew away? I mean, why didn’t he just fly away with her then? Some romance. Bleck. Then again, I was very young when the book came out and thought kissing was icky. Hahaha. Also, I felt any romantic element would be moot point since Alys even felt that Selendrile was just keeping her around for entertainment purposes, which held true to character but again…romance? How can there be romance given that one was a dragon that aged differently and one was a young human female. Didn’t Alys even point that out herself?
Without that romantic element, I always saw Alys and Selendrile as two ‘people’ that would have probably would have be life-long friends. Like, they help each other survive, exchange ideas etc. I remember that Selendrile pointing out how men in power were the ones making rules like having maidens as sacrifices and it totally clicked in my head. I liked Alys since she was just so darn practical (in most cases). Like you said, her voice was very engaging and I liked her. She wasn’t perfect and was vengeful instead of a martyr…which she still did at the end and was really irritating. I also thought it was cool Selendrile could speak to other animals when he was in that form.
Yeah, this book made an impression on me. Lol. I still like dragons because of this book. Probably doesn’t hold up to the test of times though. Thanks for the flashback! 🙂
Hannah HNovember 9, 2012 at 10:28 pm
Yeah, I like v cubed a lot, but this one just wasn’t memorable for me. Meh. But have y’all read Heir Apparent or Deadly Pink? I’d recommend the second one, if you liked her writing but not the plot. It’s about sisters, and the expectations a younger one has for an older one, and the feeling of always being compared to someone better. It’s also about being “perfect” and how that can really be a terrible thing. Best part for a reader of popular YA? Little to no romance.
Please consider reading it. She can do much better.
ChristinaNovember 10, 2012 at 12:25 am
I was biting my nails waiting for this! I loved VVV in junior high and had such fond memories of her books that I bought most of her catalog a while back. I love the book but have to agree with the points you make, especially regarding the lack of an actual statement about the issues it’s raising. Your review is so thoughtful and responsible–a world away from the sort of dismissive attitude a lot of these ‘older’ YA books get from reviewers, I feel.
Have you or Thea read the author’s Companions of the Night? It’s my all time favorite–I don’t think I could’ve survived junior high without carrying the slim little hardback in my bookbag with me, I loved it that much. It’s pretty similar in tone and plot to Dragon’s Bait, while being about vampires, and problematic in pretty much the same ways as Dragon’s Bait… but it’s so good, I promise! It’s at least worth reading for its quiet, somber mood and for its interesting status as a sort of precursor to Twilight.
MissieNovember 16, 2012 at 12:22 am
I read this many years ago, when I first discovered VVV, and thought it was…strange. Especially the romance. However, The Rumplestiltskin Problem is one of my favorite rewrites of a fairy tale ever, and I remember being quite fond of Heir Apparent.
SpencerNovember 23, 2012 at 2:11 pm
You JUST found this book?I read it like, when I was 12. And it’s awesome. And I want a sequel. But then again, I was 12 (ish. I think.) so the whole theme/message part escaped me, but looking back I agree that the whole “revenge is bad/doesn’t end well” part is heavy-handed, cliche, boring.
However, I loved the rest of the book: the dragon looking down on humans all the time didn’t bother me (if you were a shapeshifting, semi-immortal dragon that kept getting fed people by other people in an attempt to appease you, wouldn’t you look down on them? Plus, you fly. So you look down on people from the air.); the setting was, to me, at the time, creative and brilliant despite being a traditional semi-accurate medieval setting; Alys/Selendrile were a good duo, with Alys’ relative innocence and desire for revenge contrasting with Selendrile’s jaded attitude and apparent disdain for humans.
The whole self-blame part was a wtf moment. I expected her attitude to be along the lines of you-got-what-you-deserved-kinda, rather than full on oh-my-gosh-what-have-I-done-?. But then again, one (I) could (did) easily (eh..) justify it as that Alys’ previous actions were buoyed by rage, motivated by revenge, and blinded by grief, so that her regret was a natural reaction to realizing how carried away she had gotten.
The ending, as I’m sure anyone who reads it will agree, was disappointingly abrupt.