I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons by Peter S. Beagle (book review).

Back in the mid-1960s, I was reading Peter Beagle’s first novel, “A Fine and Private Place,” when an acquaintance told me that the title was a very apt quotation from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” a poem so full of book title quotes you’d hardly believe it. Sixty years on, Beagle is still a fine literary writer, now aged 85, producing clever, unusual fantasy novels.

The title ‘I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons’ doesn’t have a specific literary origin, but it alludes to the vermin-exterminator’s conclusion, typically referring to mice, rats, or cockroaches. Robert, the main character, is a dragon-exterminator who specializes in killing and removing these pests, particularly from castles and commercial premises. He does it because his late father did, and he, aged 18, hates the job.

We are in a fairly standard medieval world, cutting only weapons with added dragons. There appear to be a hundred or more dragon breeds in this world, ranging in size from large to small, displaying a variety of patterns and colors, and varying in their level of danger. However, they all possess a certain level of intelligence, enabling people to keep some dragons as pets and train them to perform household chores. While the names of castles and villages appear to be fictional, they are roughly Franco-Germanic, and there are dozens of princes living within a few days’ horseback ride who are looking for brides. The only real country mentioned is Egypt, which is a casual reference.

The second major character is Cerise, the local beautiful princess at Castle Bellemontagne, also 18, who is trying to teach herself to read and write, which princesses of the time are not meant to do, and for whose hand in marriage dozens of princes have gathered on one of the formal monthly occasions when direct, competitive appearances are allowed. We are shown or told about a few of the princes who were rejected for shyness, boasting, bad poetry, or inept dancing.

Our third main character is Crown Prince Reginald of the Kingdom of Corvinia, also 18, who knows nothing of the marriage bidding session but strays into the area by chance, travelling with only his mysterious valet, Mortmain, in an attempt to prove himself a worthy prince and hero by killing something dangerous, like a larger dragon. In fact, Reginald is more interested in flowers. However, Reginald is also tall and extremely handsome. When the two of them accidentally encounter Princess Cerise alone in her Royal Woods, where she’s working on her reading and writing, they fail to recognise her, but she falls in love with Reginald. We anticipate an engagement, particularly from her perspective, as he appears occupied with various pursuits. So, we have three fascinating lead characters, as well as many great minor ones.

The first few chapters set up this situation. Throughout the novel, Reginald embarks on a quest to locate and slay a suitable large dragon, with the ultimate goal of becoming a hero. Cerise hires Robert to serve as a dragon expert, and she naturally agrees to participate. Like all quests, this is a camping trip, though with plenty of action and interest.

Nothing turns out as planned in this story. The humorous tone of the early chapters, which sometimes rises and sharpens with wit, becomes much darker. It’s a story about escaping from the demands of one’s family, finding the right profession, and falling in love with the person who loves you rather than with somebody who loves another.

The final chapter suggests that there might be a sequel to come. In the meantime, this is an entertaining novel from a writer who is always well worth reading.

Chris Morgan

June 2024

(pub: Saga Press/Simon & Schuster, 2024. 277 page hardback. Price: $26.99 (US). £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-60-5508-3

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