I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons Proves Peter Beagle Is Always Worth the Wait

Books Reviews Peter Beagle
I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons Proves Peter Beagle Is Always Worth the Wait

If you feel like you’ve heard about Peter Beagle’s latest fantasy novel I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons before, it’s likely because you have. The book, which was first announced back in 2007, has had something of a tumultuous journey to publication, involving everything from scope creep (it was originally supposed to be a novella), alleged issues between Beagle and his previous publisher, and a drawn-out legal battle with a former manager. 

In the wake of that court case, which saw him regain the legal rights to his intellectual property, much of Beagle’s (excellent and extensive) backlist is in the process of getting new editions, and the prospect of new readers discovering classics like A Fine and Private Place or The Innkeeper’s Song is genuinely delightful. All of that, of course, pales in comparison to the release of I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons, the first new novel from Beagle in nearly a decade, which arrives on bookstore shelves 17 years after it was promised and is, to be clear, utterly worth the wait. 

Beagle has long been a master in the fantasy space, and his stories like The Last Unicorn have been formative texts for many readers of this genre. His works, which run the gamut from ghost stories to contemporary mythological retellings to delicate meditations on death and loss, all explore complex themes and delight in narrative contradiction, constantly challenging the ways many of us have been taught to understand what a fantasy story is meant to be and do. Laced with frequently hilarious dialogue, sly wit, and delightful anachronisms, his sharp, lyrical prose is defies easy categorization: Though his tone is often breezy and his stories are generally quite funny, it’s a mistake to assume that they’re what anyone might consider lighthearted.  A distinctly melancholy air tends to run through much of his work, a bittersweet honesty that rejects the easy platitudes of many fantasy classics. 

I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons combines many of Beagle’s most familiar and successful tendencies as an author, crafting a fully realized, pseudo-medieval fantasy world where dragons are real, princes must seek adventure, and young men long for lives with a different shape than the ones they’re currently living. It follows the story of Gaius Aurelius Constantine Heliogabalus Thrax, a dragon exterminator in the kingdom of Bellemontagne who prefers to simply go by Robert and hates his job. His business, inherited from his father, largely involves removing dragons—in this world most often small nuisances that are generally closer to household pests, though a few grow much larger—-from local homes and castles, and is a frequently gruesome endeavor. Though Robert secretly saves and protects as many dragons as possible, he feels rather rubbish about himself and longs for a different kind of life, perhaps as the valent to a prince or other dignitary that might allow him to see the world. But when Bellamontagne’s king summons him to clear the palace of dragons in advance of a visit from the crown prince of the neighboring kingdom of Corvinia, his life changes in ways he never would have expected.

Princess Cerise, a smart, capable, and exceptionally beautiful young woman, has determined Reginald is the princess of her dreams. (It is, of course, the only sort of life of which she is allowed to dream, though she’s been teaching herself to read in her spare time.) Reginald for his part, doesn’t particularly like being royal and has no ambitions of kingship. He’s been sent out to prove himself as a hero on the orders of his battle-hungry father, King Krije, who’s the kind of ruler who has a lot of dead animal heads and human body parts tacked up around his throne room. Under the care of his manservant and general minder Morimain, he’s on the hunt for a dragon to slay, hopefully, one big enough to burnish the family name, allow him to return home in triumph, and get his father off his back about his merits as a potential successor. Unfortunately, Reginald isn’t particularly brave or strong or skilled with a sword, so he and Mortmain turn to Robert in the hopes that the town dragon expert can offer him some assistance. 

What follows is one part adventure and one part story of self-discovery, as Robert, Cerise, and Reginald journey out to find a dragon and encounter a much more dangerous evil along the way, one that challenges each of them to confront their own understanding of themselves and who they’re meant to be. As Robert explores what his lifelong connection to dragons really means and Reginald works to accept that it’s okay if he’s not the kind of hero his father wants him to be, Cerise slowly begins to find the strength to reject the passivity that has shaped much of her life, and accept what her role as the leader of a kingdom really means. It’s all warm and very satisfying and these three characters are wonderful together as they face life-threatening dangers. 

Beagle’s dragon lore is fascinating—so much so that I wouldn’t have minded delving into even more of the differences between species and the legends of the famous ancient dragons known as the Kings—-and his story is surprisingly dark. Yes, much of I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons has a decidedly whimsical and satirical feel, but there’s also no small amount of death and violence and even a bit of body horror thrown on top. One of the best things about Beagle’s writing is that he’s always understood that the best fairytales have teeth and claws, as well as a definite hint of the bittersweet throughout. These truths are evident here, in this briskly paced, magical little story about finding your courage and trusting your friends that cleverly puts its own subversive spin on many of the most familiar tropes of the fantasy genre.

If there’s something to complain about, its’s perhaps that this book is too short. (I’d have loved to see what comes next for all these characters.) But Beagle remains a absolute master of his craft, and how lucky we are to have him writing for us again. 

I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons is available now wherever books are sold. 

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

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