Past Reading: Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls by Jane Lindskold

Speaking of cover art, I’m sorry, but I hate this new cover for Lindskold’s BROTHER TO DRAGONS, COMPANION TO OWLS:


The original cover is much better. Here is a little thumbnail which will hopefully give you a general idea:


Now, the reason I was thinking of this book recently — it was published in 1994, which is when I first bought it, so it’s not one that comes up in casual conversations about books all that often anymore — is because of AN INTERIOR LIFE. This book is completely different. But when I think of the category Unique SFF Novels, this book is one that leaps to mind.

As it happens, it was Lindskold’s debut novel, and she notes that she is “irrationally fond of it.” Hah! The reason she’s fond of it is because it’s an excellent book that must have been a challenge to write. Also a lot of fun.

Sarah is insane. After all, she talks to walls, rubber dragons, and other inanimate objects. What no one else knows is that the inanimate answers her back. When budget cuts put Sarah out of a mental home and onto the streets, she is adopted by a street gang ruled by Head Wolf, a sometimes brutal man who may be as insane as she is. But someone wants Sarah — perhaps merely to put her back inside, perhaps for more sinister reasons. Championed by the hacker Abalone, assisted by other members of the Pack, Sarah goes into hiding, but hiding may not be enough to preserve her freedom — or her life.

The thing about Sarah is she can’t speak normally, she can’t read or accurately process written words. She can, however, remember and parrot emotionally charged language, so she communicates by means of appropriate quotes from Shakespeare and so on. She also talks to her two-headed rubber dragon, named Betwixt and Between. Talking to toys is not unusual, but they talk back, and the reader is immediately confronted with the whole question of how much of this is in Sarah’s head. In that way, it’s similar to AN INTERIOR LIFE, because there the entire fantasy plot could be in Sue’s head.

In this one, though, every now and then an inanimate object will tell Sarah something really useful that she has absolutely no way of knowing. How this works is not really adequately explained — there is some handwaving, but it doesn’t really make sense, not that this is likely to bother the reader, because this is a story that pulls you in from the first moment.

Today, this little gem of a novel (220 pp) might be published as a dystopia, since that’s such a Thing right now. But the focus is not on a horrible repressive government, though given the street society Sarah joins, it’s obvious that there must be dystopian elements to the broader society. The bad guys are part of an Evil Corporation, though, rather than a Repressive Government.

This is told in a first-person-present-tense voice that I believe was less common at the time it was written, and that is still hard to pull off. Sarah is an excellent protagonist, especially the contrast between her as an adult character with adult complexity and motivations, and the way those around her tend to treat her as younger and more innocent because of her problems with communication. There are a good many secondary characters, mostly drawn broadly but well. Lindskold does a fine job making every character interesting and believable — in Head Wolf’s case, it’s amazing that Lindskold pulled off “believable”, but you really WANT him to be real. His Jungle Books-based gang is a wonderful element to the story. In fact, this novel crams a lot of disparate pieces into its short length, yet they somehow all make sense as you read the story. Writing any kind of synopsis must have been tough!

Jane Lindskold has written quite a few books, but I must admit, I haven’t read all that many of them. I looked for more of her work after I read this, so I’ve read a handful of the titles that came out in the late nineties. Of those, BROTHER TO DRAGONS was far and away my favorite. Now that I’ve got this title back in mind, though, I’m curious about Lindskold’s later work, especially the six-volume Firekeeper series. Has anybody read those? What did you think?

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7 thoughts on “Past Reading: Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls by Jane Lindskold”

  1. I loved BROTHER TO DRAGONS, and should probably fish it off the shelf again. Never liked anything else she wrote quite as much. I did try the Firekeeper series, and my husband found it worth finishing, while I stopped somewhere before it ended. Can’t remember real specifics, my impression is it just didn’t hold enough of my interest. Lots of animal behavior stuff, as you probably guessed. I don’t remember thinking any of it was implausible, FWIW.

  2. I LOVED “Brother to Dragons.” You’re right in that the old cover was much better! I probably would have picked it up much quicker (with the new cover it was the title that drew my interest). I find Lindskold kind of hit or miss. I really love “Child of a Rainless Year” with its older protagonist and beautiful magic, but didn’t care for the pyramid book (I can’t recall the title). She also had a series about the Thirteen Orphans or something that had a fantastic first book, but less impressive second and third books (it’s starts off with this interesting Chinese based magic and culture and then ends up more standard European in later books, is how I felt). I definitely recommend “Child of a Rainless Year,” though.

  3. I read the Firekeeper books as they came out and they still have a place on my shelf. The animal characters were as well drawn as the humans, and although they could communicate with Firekeeper and with one another, to me it never came across as cutesy or clichéd. They are far more than guides and servants; they have their own lives, wills, and desires, which was refreshing. The first book was my favorite of the series – it was a creative take on the legend of a child raised by wolves and returning to life among humans, and politics played a more important (and far more interesting) part than I had expected going in. Out of the six books, I found the first three the most cohesive. I enjoyed the others but thought they wandered a bit farther afield – although the main characters continued to grow and remain true to themselves, which I appreciated.

  4. Matthew, Kristina, Elaine, thanks for weighing in about Lindskold’s books! Much appreciated. I will definitely look into Child of a Rainless Year — great title — and eventually I must try at least the first book of the Firekeeper series. It sounds like I’d appreciate the way she handles the animal characters.

  5. I’ve read the Firekeeper books (forget if I actually finished the series). I like the first book far and away the best. I didn’t care as much for the political side of things, but the way Firekeeper is trying to integrate back in with humans, and her relationship with the wolves, was very good.

    I actually have Brother to Dragons, Companion of Owls with the original cover… now I’m wanting to read it.

  6. I did wind up re-reading it again, straight through. Still love it!

    On second thought, btw, I REALLY HATE the newer cover. That may be my pick for Very Worst Cover EVER.

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