‘Ocean at the End of the Lane’ makes a big creepy splash

How does he do it? How does Neil Gaiman, a grown man “of a certain age” manage to so effortlessly recall the inner voice and outer actions of a little boy? This short novel is a delightful mix of coming-of-age and creepy thriller, with a final chapter that made me sigh deeply in satisfaction of how the story ended despite the lack of “happy ever after”.

Ocean‘s story is told through the memories of a middle-aged man looking back at events that happened when he was 7 years old. The grown man is back in his home county in England for a funeral (though we never learn who has died), and he takes the opportunity to revisit his childhood home and that of Lettie Hempstock, the slightly (or greatly, depending on how you look at it) older girl who lives down the lane. Behind her house is what looks like a duck pond to our young narrator, though Lettie insists it is an ocean. As the man sits on a bench next to the pond, he begins to remember what really happened all those years ago.

Gaiman perfectly inhabits the body and voice of his young narrator. Again and again, the boy’s reaction to those around him — his pesky little sister, his loving but somewhat absentminded parents, Lettie and her mysterious womenfolk, the horrific nanny who comes to live with him and who cannot be budged — is pitch-perfect. The little boy is shy and quiet, much more comfortable in the company of a book than other boys his age. Even as Lettie takes him on some eerie adventures, and helps him deal with the consequences of those adventures back in the real world, Gaiman makes the reader feel the little boy’s inner strength as well as his sheer terror.

The real-world elements have the ring of sincerity about them, and strangely so do the otherworldly elements. One of Gaiman’s gifts is that he doesn’t try to over-explain the hows and whys of the supernatural elements that appear in his books. They simply are, and the reader believes and struggles to understand even as Gaiman’s characters do. We never fully learn where Lettie and her kin came from or when, but in the end it doesn’t matter. They exist, clearly, because the little boy sees and feels them and the consequences of what they do. No one watching television for the first time ever demands to know how the picture and sound gets inside that little box before they can enjoy the sensation. There’s a time and a place for magic, and no one understands that better than Gaiman.

 

‘His Majesty’s Dragon’

I’m not sure why I’ve never picked up on this series before. I am enormously fond of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, and I have enjoyed Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of naval life during the Napoleonic wars. It wouldn’t be the most inaccurate description to say that Novik has created the apparent love child of those two series.

As His Majesty’s Dragon opens, Will Lawrence is the captain of a British warship that has just captured a French ship and is in the process of appropriating the loot. He and his crew are shocked to discover that among the bounty is a dragon egg. Dragons, you see, are key weapons in the world’s armies, and Britain is going to need every one it can get to hold off the French emperor, Napoleon. For Captain Lawrence, the find is a mixed blessing, especially when the hatched dragonet, Temeraire, chooses him as its handler, a permanent bond. While he earns a large monetary reward for capturing such valuable cargo, it means Lawrence must leave his beloved navy and learn to how to fight from the back of a dragon in the Air Corps.

Amidst all the tension and drama of war, there are also gently comic episodes, as Temeraire passes through the draconic equivalences of infancy, toddlerhood, and adolescence. The bond between him and his captain is quite sweet, and makes them both very easy to root for. Other dragon/captain pairings are equally charming, as are the supporting characters.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book was how Novik so smoothly incorporated dragons into real history. At first, I thought it was going to be “oh my gosh what’s this giant egg, holy cow it’s a dragon, what are we going to do with that” situation, but instead she cleverly built a world where dragons have always existed in the wild, and have been “tamed” for many generations. It creates a more seamless integration between fantasy and history, and it was fun to read casual references to past (real) battles and the role played by (imaginary) dragons.

I cannot end this review without tipping my cap to Sarah (aka beserene over at LibraryThing), whose recent reviews of each book in the series to date both introduced me to the series and whetted my appetite for tracking it down at the library. I’ll definitely be continuing on to see what happens next to Capt. Lawrence and Temeraire.