How can you not warm to a book which begins..?
“Any relationship to any historical fact WHATSOEVER is entirely coincidental. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.”
For those who have seen the 2010 film, any relationship to the far richer, more imaginative, more thoughtful and less predictable plots of the books on which it was based is also pretty tenuous. For sure, the film was perfectly watchable and cute enough; but believe me, there’s much more to the books.
Cressida Cowell’s Vikings never get bogged down in the niceties of longship design or the nasseties of swords and axes. Instead, they have a great deal to say about being frightened, weather-battered and apparently beyond hope – but at the same time, endlessly resourceful and determined. As a boy, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III has to bear not only an absurd name but also the expectations of being the mighty chief’s not-so-mighty son: small, thoughtful, somewhat weedy and the natural target for his bullying cousin and unlovely fellow clansmen. Over (at time of writing) ten books, Cowell develops a brilliant expanding cast of supporting characters: best friend Fishlegs (gloomy, asthmatic, bespectacled and utterly loyal), PE-teacher-cum-drill-sergeant Gobber the Belch, twin nemeses Snotlout and Dogsbreath the Duhbrain, pint-size prison-breaker and indispensable ally Camicazi, as well as ever more dangerous and exotic adversaries such as the Hairy Scary Librarian and the witch Excellinor.
Not to mention the dragons…
Hiccup’s own dragon is the apparently ridiculous Toothless, one of the best and funniest pets in children’s books today. Like Hiccup, Toothless is small and weedy and not at all suited to fighting; unlike Hiccup, he really doesn’t care. Toothless appears to have no redeeming features whatsoever: he is lazy, greedy, cowardly, utterly self-centred and resolutely un-housetrained; but by the end of the first book, both Hiccup and the reader are devoted. Toothless is helped by Cowell’s inspired “transcription” of Dragonese, the arcane dragon-language that Hiccup sets himself to learning and which should really be read aloud for maximum effect:
na eaty di bum-support, na eaty di sleepy-slab plus doubly-doubly na eaty di miaowla!
[don’t eat the chair, don’t eat the bed and definitely don’t eat the cat.]
If you want to hear someone who can do that really well, I can’t recommend highly enough David Tennant’s audiobook versions (now available for the first seven books). I may be biased, but having heard Gobber the Belch as a Borders rugby coach and Fishlegs as a nerdy Scottish schoolboy, I just can’t imagine them any other way. The audio versions are particularly excellent for long car journeys if you have a CD player (not yet available to download as far as I can see).
It’s a pleasure to read the whole series and see Cowell develop a talent for plotting herself (and Hiccup) into an apparently impossible corner, only to mount a daring last-minute rescue based on some overlooked detail or impossible coincidence: you can almost read the “Ta-dah!”s between the lines. These are laugh-out-loud, read-the-best-bits-to-your-friends books, and I personally can’t wait for Book 11.
A special mention for younger readers of the Emily Brown series, especially That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown and Emily Brown and the Elephant Emergency. Feisty Emily Brown crosses the Sahara by motorbike (with faithful rabbit Stanley) before breakfast, and explores the Outermost Regions of the Milky Way in good time for tea. She doesn’t at first appear to have much in common with put-upon Hiccup, but deep down they surely share the same DNA: a core of common sense and a principle of standing up to bullies, whether they be Viking villains and mindless thugs – or spoiled, thoughtless queens and soul-crushing corporations. I cheered when Emily Brown threw her friend’s mother’s nagging mobile phone into a crocodile-infested river (although should any of my children’s friends be reading, I don’t recommend that course in real life, and definitely not with my phone).
Emily Brown for President, I say, and Hiccup for King of the Wilderwest. The world would definitely be a better place.