Apr 11 2013 10:00am

A Love Letter to The Dragon Quartet by Laurence Yep

Dragon Cauldron Laurence YepTake my hand, dear reader, and let’s take a leisurely stroll down Nostalgia Lane to revisit our roots. The “we” in the “our” is us: nerds, geeks, genre fans. And our roots are the beginnings, those first books or games or sites or images we stumbled upon as children that started the itch, that itch for the fantastic that leads some people to—as adults—spend thousands of dollars cosplaying at Comic Con while others look on in bemused confusion.

I am the person I am today because of the books I read as a child. This is a fact I am absolutely sure of and something I can plot the course of my life by. For me, this can be seen in the general and specific: I work at Tor because for my entire life, my personal bookshelves have been stamped with the little mountain top logo and when I turned my eyes to publishing, there was only one company that sprung to mind. But also on the broad scale, I will always pause by the fairy tchotchkes in truck stops and make a beeline for the genre section in any bookstore, likely until the day I die. F/SF is in my bones.

I know exactly when, where, and how this started. I was ten and in fourth grade at Stratford Elementary on Riverside Road in Alexandria, Virginia. More specifically, I was in the far back left corner of the library, looking at the shelf second from the bottom. I was supposed to be picking out a chapter book for my very first book report and what caught my eye that day changed my life. See, some girls like horses and some girls like princesses; I was lost the day I saw the dragon on the cover of Laurence Yep’s Dragon Cauldron. Bag and tag it: a nerd was born.

My teacher, a kind woman named Mrs. Brown who, upon reflection as an adult, I’m not exactly confident was all that good at her job, discouraged my choice when I showed it to her for approval. “It’s too long for you,” were her words. Fortunately, that was enough to make a stubborn kid dig in her heels and refuse to budge. What Mrs. Brown should have pointed out was that Cauldron is the third in a series and I should probably start with the first book. Alas, this fact went unnoticed by all and so I was in for a very confusing time. But I was obstinate and didn’t want to admit I was in over my head so I read the first chapter three times and then soldiered on, hoping it would all make sense at some point. Eventually it did. And it was beautiful.

In case you are unfamiliar, let me tell you a little bit about Laurence Yep’s Dragon Quartet. In the series opener, Dragon of the Lost Sea, you meet Shimmer, the sassy, brave, and most of all, desperate dragon princess whose home has been stolen by an evil witch named Civet who now holds the sea locked in a small blue pebble. In that book, Shimmer picks up a boy named Thorn, a member of that well-worn and much beloved trope of the abused orphan whose kindness and spirit can never be stamped out. The quest to restore Shimmer and her kingdom stretches across four novels and involves the additions of a blue-haired slave, the reformed witch, and a talking monkey with a magical staff. Yep borrows from Chinese folklore, most clearly in his adaption of the Monkey King legend, but also in the general geography and society of the world.

Now for the squee: let me tell you why these books are awesome. First, underwater dragon kingdoms. Yes, you heard me right. Imagine dragons swimming gracefully through waves of bioluminescent plankton as they journey home to a palace at the bottom of the sea. Imagine massive wings breaking the surf as they rise into the sky, for the dragons are as at home in air as they are in water. I was a kid raised on Disney and therefore well familiar with castles—castles in forests and deserts and overlooking quaint romanticized villages. Castles where princesses look placidly out of stained glass windows at knights who ride across draw bridges. King Triton’s palace, therefore, in The Little Mermaid was always my favorite: exotic, magical, not to mention how cool it was to see mermaids swimming all over it. Yep’s version is even more grand: treasure vaults and grand ball rooms, fields of seaweed and coral taking the place of rose gardens and hedge mazes—and dragons.

To state a cliché: the visuals in these books set my imagination ablaze. I can still recall the sense of gleeful wonder I felt when I read those descriptions for the first time. That moment is one of my favorite things of being a genre fan. I felt it when I journeyed with the Fellowship to the forest of Lothlórien; when I was on the boat with Harry, seeing Hogwarts for the first time; when I hovered over the shoulder of Phedre as she entered the temple that housed The Name of God—these are the moments that give you shivers, the moments that you stop and re-read because goddamn was that awesome. They are the moments you want to bottle and keep on a shelf.

Moving on, within the exquisite world Yep drew are dragons and to this day, they remain my favorite depiction of the trope. These are not your brainless overgrown lizards roaring fire, nor are they your treasure-hoarding isolationists. These are societal beings with complex community dynamics, political hierarchies, and dynastic histories—which brings me to my next point of what there is to love about genre fiction for children: convoluted adult concepts can be dressed up with magic and acted out by fantastical creatures and the next thing you know, your ten-year-old understands what a dauphine is. Social cues and interpersonal conflicts can be demonstrated by a band of dwarves hunting for mythical diamonds and lessons will be learned nevertheless. Having the context be so far removed from reality helps children apply the messages and morals to real life situations by stripping them of any specific box or situation: in short, fairy tales have fairies for a reason.

Yep’s series taught me about power struggles amongst factions, about the callous cruelty that runs rampant when “otherness” is present, about madness and the terrifying possibilities when it holds command, about jealousy, about the awful power of baseless hope and faith without foundation. It taught me about group dynamics and what is required to make friendships function and maintain them. And also, it taught me about loyalty. Loyalty is often one of the most significant themes in narrative fiction and in genre fiction in particular. Love can be too complicated and revenge too simple; hate can be too petty and stupidity too frustrating. But loyalty, loyalty is the coverall perfect motivator. You can be loyal to a king, a land, a lover, a friend, a dog, a god, an ideal, a memory—and as a kid there are few more important lessons.

Loyalty is altruistic and teaches one to connect with something outside the self. Children are inherently selfish; internalizing the concepts of “I” and “Mine” is an integral building block to consciousness and self-actualization. But the best kids are those who don’t linger on that step for long, the ones who know to share and empathize. This is why loyalty in particular is such a common theme in children’s fiction: it’s important, simple, powerful—and integral to making non-shitty adults.

The Dragon Quartet featured loyalty that developed and matured, loyalty that changed as circumstances did and that adapted to new characters and roles. Those books taught me a lot about how to be a good friend, about how jealousy will happen and that pushing such feelings aside is to be admired. They taught me about promises and their significance, about competing powers of forgiveness and bitterness—and did it all through the relationships of a dragon, a monkey, an orphan, a slave, and a witch.

So this is a sketch of not only what the Dragon Quartet did for me, but what makes genre fiction such a powerful force with children who are just starting to intellectualize their world. Dragon Cauldron started me on a path that now has me sitting at a desk, working for the company that still publishes Laurence Yep. But more importantly, it started me on a path to becoming the moral and thoughtful adult I am today who still gets her thrills from genre books. So thank you, Mr. Yep—sincerely, a fan.

Stay alert: the next stop on the Memory Lane Train will be The Golden Compass, book 1 of His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, wherein I discuss why I will forever feel cheated because my soul is not anthropomorphized outside of my body as my own spirit animal companion.

Leah Withers is an Associate Publicist at Tor Books who hails from Northern Virginia, by way of Texas. Sometimes she feels so funky she doesn’t know what to do with herself. Damn, that’s funky.

Jeff Wight
1. jdubb
When I saw the title, I totally though you were refering to the Dragon Quartet series by Marjorie B. Kellogg, a series I read most of the way through as a younger person.

PS - this one sounds better ;)
2. Noisette
I'm a follower of several of the re-reads here at, but this is the first time I've been compelled to comment-- thank you so much, Leah, for reminding me of Yep's beautiful series. It's been far too long since I've had the opportunity to think of Shimmer, Thorn, Civet and company.

I constantly had my head in a book as a kid, but I think these were the first books I remember reading that changed my view of the world, friendships, and sacrifice. What I value most upon looking back, I think -- aside from Yep's vivid sense of voice, which reminds me of Peter S. Beagle more than anyone else in children's lit -- is how these books helped me understand as a kid that what has happened can't be undone, and that the past is never quite gone from the present. In their own ways, all of the characters carry their past around with them, like Shimmer's scars. However, all that is balanced by beauty: in honoring the memory of what has been lost while looking, with hope and courage, into the future. So, yes, loyalty as you say -- loyalty to the compassionate weight of memory as well as to the hope of redemption.

Thanks again to you for this article, and thanks to Mr. Yep for his lovely work.
3. BigJimV

Thanks for the introduction to a series that I have never known before but am now going to look up and read. I must admit as a fellow geek/nerd or whatever label we put upon ourselves we all have at some point experienced thos gleeful moments; when we experience the discovery the pure thrill from a book or movie that we have enjoyed and often go back to just to relive that first wonderfully exciting moment. For myself it has always been dragons, especially Smaug, and when Bilbo goes to meet him. I can't help but smile from ear to ear when Bilbo walks down that lonely dark hall for the first time and sees the monster for the first time. I can't help but smile and think this is why I got into reading fantasy and sci-fi books. Thank you again for sharing your experiences, and inspiring another trip to the library and/or bookstore.
4. RyanTH
There are two sets of books from my youth that, every few months, I keep checking to see if eBook versions have been released. This series and all the Monica Hughes young adult books. They both shaped my early reading so heavily.

I'm amazed that no company has carved a business out of creating ebooks out if all the titles that people grew up with. Priced appropriately, the impulse purchasing of nostalgia should be enough to make it worth while.
Andrew Barton
5. MadLogician
I haven't read these, but based on this article I'd totally buy ebook versions.
Fade Manley
6. fadeaccompli
My library only had books 1, 2, and 4 of the series, which caused a certain amount of confusion when I got to book 4. And my memories are all very fuzzy...except for that underwater palace. That I remember most vividly, and the discussion of the drowning sacrifice, and...brr. I should go reread these books, and finally figure out what happened in book 3.
[da ve]
7. slickhop
Oh, this book. Dragon of the Lost Sea. A very formative dragon book for me too. The cover still gives me chills to look at.

8. RobinM
I love dragon stories. I haven't tried these books yet and from your description I'll have to give them a try.
Leah Withers
9. PhaeTo
@jdubb and I'd never heard of the Kellogg books--but they sound interesting. In either case: WOO DRAGONS

@Noisette What a lovely comment! Exactly the type of nostalgia I was hoping to inspire. I think you make a wonderful point about the weight of history and I definitely agree with you!

@BigJimV I'm happy to introduce you to a new series. And YES--that moment with Bilbo is exactly what I'm talking about. Ah, the shivers!

@RyanTH I had never heard of Monica Hughes but just checked her out. I'm loving the look of The Keeper of the Isis Light--will have to keep an eye out for that. I totally agree that bringing books like these back as e-books is a stellar idea. From our mouths to publishers' ears...

@MadLogician my job here is done

@fadeaccompli Wha?? The third one is great! there is a floating mountain and a snail god thing person. Enjoy the reread!

@slickhop I too love the original cover of that one--though I don't think they did any of the other books in that style. Shame.

@RobinM Enjoy!

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