Surprise Books: Toby Forward’s DRAGONBORN

I’ve been reading a lot of surprise books lately. Mostly, it’s been tied to my new Kindle and my browsing through the rather randomly organized Kindle “shelves” at my library. But every now and then, I take a book off a physical, you-can-actually-touch-this shelf and end up thinking, Wow–I didn’t see this story coming.

Today’s surprise read is Dragonborn by Toby Forward.

I picked this up because it’s a dragon book. Sort of out of habit, from all the years when I brought home anything about dragons for my son to read, or at least decide if he wanted to read. A bit out of interest, because after reading most of the dragon books I brought home for my son, I’ve become a bit of a dragon addict, too. And, oh, just because, you know–you never can have too many possible reads on your nightstand and/or Kindle.

So where was the surprise? Well, from the cover, I thought Dragonborn would be a relatively “young” middle-grade read, with a fairly simply storyline, not too complicated characters, and some cute stuff with dragons. A quick, light read–maybe for the end of a longish, tiredish day. I’m not really criticizing the cover at all–the dragons themselves are beautiful, I love the image of Sam up in the hills, with the lights of the city or village down below in the distant. But…I think the cover, especially the picture of Sam, did create the impression I had about what the story inside would be like. It has a kind of Disneyesque feel to it. Again, not a criticism, but definitely a certain feel.

And the story is just not Disneyesque at all. Okay, yes, someone important dies in the first pages (and that’s not a spoiler, it’s the opening!), but the death is told without high drama, without any of those intentionally overt yanks at the heartstrings that were such a part of oh, say, The Lion King. It’s told with a quiet sadness, almost an inevitability, and with a lovely thread of where-does-this-take-us-now for Sam, the hero, and for the reader.

The rest of the book lives up to the opening. And, to me, counters that first impression of the cover. The writing is clean and clear, so–yes–a strong reader of 8 or 9 could totally read this book. And, I think, enjoy it, but they would need to be a relatively sophisticated reader for that age, which is different than being a strong reader. The vocabulary wouldn’t be over their heads, and the sentences are tight and not overly long. But…the whole story leads you along, in a good way, with unanswered questions. Sam is the hero, and you are given access to some of his thoughts, but not all–so some things come at you as an Oh! moment.

One of my favorite of these moments is when Sam ends up at the wizard college and is asked to prove he can do magic. We know that Sam has been taught that magic is not for games, that it’s not to be wasted, and we know that the wizard college teaches just the opposite–that wizards should use magic for anything they need, or anything needed by a client who’s willing to pay the wizard. What we don’t really know is whether Sam has much, if any magic. And then, after Sam confirms that the head wizard, Frastfil, is ordering him to do magic:

Sam clapped his hands. The door slammed shut, wrenching itself away from Frastfil’s hand. Frastfil found himself swept back into the room and forced around the silly desk that his whatever had owned and into the armchair. The chair spun around  and around and around, and lifted into the air, with Frosty holding on in terror of falling out. All the books jumped off the shelves and formed a cloud of paper and boards around Frosty’s head, spinning in the opposite direction from him, like a dust whirl in hot summer.

Whee! In an instant, we not only know that Sam has magic, we know that he has a lot, and that–even more importantly–he is smart about that magic.

Other elements take this story up a notch for me and, I think, for older readers (older than 8 or 9, AND older than me!) who might not be attracted by the cover. Sam is the hero, but he’s not the only point-of-view narrator. The story is broken up between Sam’s story (told in not-so-close third-person), entries in his apprentice’s notebook, and the relatively closer third-person point of view of several other characters, including some good guys, some bad guys, and a dragon. At times, that dragon narrative is further complicated by being the mixed-up pov of a dragon that has been taken over by something evil. At other times, we’re in a kind of dream-state where Sam is seeing and feeling through the dragon’s vision, and vice-versa. And we get into the pretty nasty pov of the antagonist–close up to her ickiness without getting to share exactly who or what she is. The truly nice thing is that all this is done without confusion, in a way that left Me-the-Reader happy with what I did get to know and just the right amount of intrigued with what the author wasn’t yet sharing. Really beautifully done, but….again, I feel like the cover is presenting a story without all those layers.

What am I saying here? I guess a bit of reminder that you really can’t judge a book by its cover, a bit of frustration that–on another day, in a different mood–I would have passed on this book because of the cover, and a big chunk of recommendation that you check out this book for yourself. Mixed into all that is the usual curiosity about what goes into a cover decision and how many different ways there are of viewing a story and its market.

Interesting little addition: As I was writing this blog, I went over to Toby Forward’s website to get the link and to see if there were any more books coming in this series (yes, there are!). And I saw that the book was first published in Great Britain and that–whoa!–the British cover is totally different. Do I think it’s better? Well, artistically, I like it more, but I’m not actually sure it does a truer job of showing what’s coming once you turn to page 1, since there’s no sight of Sam anywhere to be seen.

And Dragonborn is very much Sam’s story.

What am I leaving you with? I guess: Read the book yourself and make your own decision about the covers! Luckily, I think you’ll enjoy the work.


  1. Thanks for the review. I guess the old, “can’t judge a book by it’s cover” is still important. Passed it along to a fellow critique member who is writing a dragon book too. SOUnds very different, but always good to know who the competition is.


    • beckylevine says:

      Honestly, I think good dragon books just keeps up the demand for more good dragon books! But I do know that worry. 🙂


  2. Thanks for telling us about this! I like the distinction you make between strong readers and sophisticated readers; there’s a difference, as you say. And yes, there are so many ways for a cover to go wrong! I’ve heard the argument that covers won’t matter so much in an age of e-readers, but I’m not sure that’s true.


    • beckylevine says:

      I am curious about how all this will change/morph with ebooks. Covers may actually be part of what “replaces” other gatekeepers for me. I know when I’m browsing Amazon for Kindle books, I am impacted by covers shown there. A friend pointed out recently that we may not be designing covers anymore for (just) how they show up on an actual book, but how they show up in a thumbnail image.

      Hope you enjoy the book!


      • Yes, I’m learning that the thumbnail image is key. And I expect it makes the whole process of designing a cover that much more complicated. It’s tough to come up with an image that works at both scales.


        • beckylevine says:

          I think you’re right. And, personally, I can’t quite see the day when there are NO paper books left. That’s probably me being an ostrich, but…not for a while, anyway. So we’ll probably be designing with both formats in mind for some years to come.


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