Review by Kelsey Elizabeth Moorhouse
Blazer + Bray, HarperCollins Canada, October 2019
368 pages, hardcover, $21.00 CAD, 978-0-06-285451-3
Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7
Middle Grade, Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Lately, in fact, [Ember] had begun to fear the opposite: that the spell would grow more and more threadbare until it fell apart entirely, returning her to her dragon form. […] She had no memory of being a dragon, and no desire to become one again. And what if she became something bad, something evil? Ember shuddered. Sometimes her own body felt like a cloak that could be shed or lost at any time—but what was beneath it, not even she knew.
Ember St. George is a fire dragon, and the last of her kind—but nobody, apart from her adoptive father, the great Magician and Stormancer Lionel, and her aunt, the notorious thief and Scientist Myra, can ever know. On the outside, Ember looks like any twelve-year-old girl…that is, if girls could regularly burst into flames on hot summer days and had invisible wings. Not only is the spell Lionel put on her to make her human faulty and highly illegal, but if revealed, Ember could be forced back into her native shape—one that would see her hunted for sport, driving fire dragons truly to extinction.
At a loss for how to stay inflammable during a scorching London summer, Ember decides to leave her father and home at Chesterfield University and move to Antarctica to live with her Aunt Myra on the scientific Research Station, the Firefly. For the first time in Ember’s life, she must engage with other children her own age, which turns out to be as troubling as the presence on Antarctica of conniving Lord Norfell and haughty Prince Gideon. When Ember discovers the third annual Winterglass Hunt for ice dragons is about to begin, she decides that she cannot sit back and watch the them be slaughtered like her own parents were. So, with the help and company of her new friends, Nisha and Moss, she embarks on a mission to sabotage the hunt from within. Unfortunately, things don’t go according to plan, and Ember finds herself in a high-stakes situation—one that threatens the lives of every ice dragon on Antarctica as well as her secret… and her very life.
Fawcett’s world is anchored in the late Victorian English Empire, yet dominated by the driving forces of Magic and Science. While hunting endangered species for sport was—and still is—a terrible pastime in our world, Fawcett grounds this draconic spin in an utterly believable landscape of repressed sensibilities, scientific advancement, and magical portals. The result is that disbelief is easily suspended, which allows for a thoughtful and nuanced consideration of the moral questions in play. Ember’s personal battles are, at their core, relatable. Her emotional arc plays out with stark, raw brilliance against the frigid backdrop of Antarctica.
Pairing deep emotional journeys and hideous crime with much-needed levity, Fawcett manages to tell a rather grim story with a light touch. The focus remains on adventurous, strong-willed Ember, and her arc of self-discovery is magnified and refracted so that it manifests not only in moments of interiority, but in every joyful and heart-breaking twist of her quest.
Ember and the Ice Dragons is a tale of morality, self-discovery, and the power of one against many; but it is also—just as importantly—a thrillingly fun adventure. Avid young readers of fantasy will delight in this story, reminiscent of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.
Kelsey Moorhouse is pursuing an MA in Children’s Literature, with a focus on young adult fantasy and the magic of creativity, emotion, and art. Her work has been published in NoD Magazine and Contiki 6-2. Having worked as a piano teacher, lifeguard, archival assistant, and barista, she is now dedicating her time to writing her YA novel.