Star Ratings (out of 5):
Characters: *** (3 stars)
Character development: *** (3 stars)
Plot: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)
Writing: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
Overall: *** (3 stars)
Age range recommendation: 12 and up
In the not-too-distant future, America has a dragon problem. No one knows how or why they arrived, but the enormous creatures destroy towns and eat humans. The medieval fears weren’t myths after all, but instead of knights in metal armor, mankind now faces the threat with special military divisions and dragon-slaying reality TV.
Sporty, sullen Melissa Callahan has always hated the dragons; they killed her mother and present a constant threat to her military town. When some friends convince her to join them on a prank – breaking into the “rez” and taking photos with the big blue dragon there – she unwittingly sets off a chain of events which will jeopardize her family’s lives and shatter her illusions about the war between man and monster. Melissa can hear the dragons talking, and it’s hard to see a creature as nothing but scales and teeth when it knows your name and wants to chat. Soon enough, she finds herself set up, trapped, and caught in a battle between a group of renegade pro-dragon insurgents and the military “D-men.” Both sides want to exploit her talents as a “talker,” and every choice seems to drag Melissa deeper into moral quandary of deceit, double-dealing, and political turmoil.
This debut YA novel caught my attention for several reasons. Most importantly, it’s been too long since I read a great new dragon book for teenagers. I’ve got old favorites from elementary and middle school, and there are obviously some exciting adult fantasy books with plenty of dragon action. But what with the futuristic bent of Young Adult literature these days, my scaly friends have been unjustly ignored. So when an action-packed, modern dragon story came into my sights, you can bet I sank my claws right into it.
I was also intrigued by the concept of dragons in America, set on a “reservation”, inaccurately thinking that this would be a story which featured Native American protagonists as well as dragons. It’s old news that fiction for children and teens still needs way more diversity amongst characters and authors. A mythology largely inspired by European folklore transported to a modern American reservation could have been a really excellent blending of worlds, if written well. Alas, though certain characters could conceivably have Native American heritage, the “reservations” had nothing to do with tribal lands. The military-suburban town where Melissa lives and attends school is fairly commonplace for white suburbia, except for the fact that everything is painted black (since dragons have trouble seeing that color when looking from the sky for prey) and everyone’s parents are professionally invested in some sort of national security. The later settings of the novel — which include rugged secret hideaways, unreal reality TV sets, and terrifyingly remote military camps — are much more exciting than Melissa’s hometown but strangely less vivid. McCune’s descriptive style definitely lost steam as Talker 25 progressed, though the plot was charged enough to keep me interested in how things would turn out.
My favorite part of Talker 25 was unquestionably the dragons themselves. All the flying around and inter-species alliances were interesting enough, like a more inventive Eragon (with much better writing). But it was the different voices for each draconian character, and the various personalities Melissa encountered as she navigated the frightening world as a “talker”, which really made a good impression. Conversations between Melissa and the of-course-he’s-handsome rebel lad who befriends her sounded very canned now and then. Even amongst military personnel and the rock-stars of the dragon slaying media, dialogue felt stunted at times. Luckily, this is not the case with the dragons. Some really are bloodthirsty nightmares full of spiteful fire. Some are old and tired, just wanting to be left in peace on their comfortable mountain tops. Fans of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles will be pleased to meet more than a few devastatingly sarcastic creatures. A few young dragons can only communicate through feelings and physical expression, and one baby in particular will probably win the hearts of even the most skeptical readers. Human characters’ bonds with various dragon are significantly more emotional than their bonds with each other, in this book. Maybe in the coming sequels I will care more about Melissa’s discoveries about her family, and perhaps in further books the fraught romantic elements might make a little more sense. But based on McCune’s debut, I hope that he plays to his strength in future writing and gives us a lot more dragon dialogue and fewer formulaic human characters.
People will definitely be touting Talker 25 as “The Hunger Games with dragons,” and it’s not an entirely inaccurate label. This book checks off several themes which are getting pretty repetitive in popular, futuristic YA fiction. The violence against conscripted young people; the omnipresent government spooks; the teenagers working under captivity; the gore and mental trauma; even the shock-factor reality TV angle are all present here. I found several of these elements to be rather unnecessary, though they did make way for some big plot points in the second half of the book, when style and pacing started to lag and something had to keep the story going.
Even though Talker 25 has trouble containing McCune’s energetic ideas, and despite some flaws with style and pacing, I had lots of fun reading this new futuristic YA adventure story. It was gritty and stressful, and I’m intrigued enough to think that I’ll try to read the inevitable sequel. My advice to would-be readers is this: try to see this debut novel as a modern fantasy story instead of just another grim teenage thriller with the odd magical creature thrown in. If you focus on the dragons and the fresh take on knights training for battle, then the gratuitous make-over scenes and underdeveloped government goons might just fade into background noise. Because the dragons are great and the concept is fun. If you’re after an exciting series with a few unexpected twists then give McCune a try. Ever since finishing the book I’ve been gravitating towards my collection of great dragon books from a decade ago, and if this starts a new scaly trend in YA fiction I’ll be happier than a hungry wyvern in a field full of slow-moving cattle.