In this opening of Halloran’s (Trial of the Dragon, 2016, etc.) latest YA fantasy series, a teen in a post-apocalyptic world endures totalitarian rulers and bonds with a dragon like no other.
After a nuclear war killed billions, a group called the Dominion took control. Thirteen-year-old Gabe lives in a city called Newton, which is actually a former hospital complex. This keeps civilians safe from wild dragons outside the walls. Children, in fact, are restricted from ever leaving Newton, but this doesn’t stop Gabe from trailing his father Saul’s dragon-hunting party. Though the men manage to slay a dragon and Gabe even helps, some declare the teen’s surprise presence a curse that caused the death of a few hunters. Saul salvages the dragon’s eggs, and Gabe later spots a leftover one that differs from the rest in color and size. The dragon that ultimately hatches is likewise unique, a runt Gabe names Squawk and who, because the boy is the first to touch the egg, bonds with him. Unfortunately, dragons in the compound are meant to bond with Dominion members, not lowly citizens. Now Gabe’s under the watchful eye of the Count, the Dominion’s chief enforcer, a woman who mercilessly wields Newton’s sole gun. He has good reason to fear for his well-being, and likely Squawk’s as well. Halloran’s story is a worthy start to his series, introducing curious elements such as the devastating war and someone inciting the Dominion by incessantly painting “NA” on Newton’s walls. Details come much later, but only enough to tease future books. Though the narrative’s simple, characters’ relationships are gleefully complex. The Count, for example, goes from viciously meting out punishment to behaving almost maternally toward Gabe. Mandy, too, the Dominion member who adopts Squawk (naming him Toby), seems romantically interested in Gabe, while he tries convincing her that the dragon responds to her commands. The boy’s link to his dragon is endearing, much more than an owner-pet connection, as Gabe essentially communicates with Squawk telepathically. The teen, meanwhile, suffers a good deal of maltreatment, but his steady resolve steers the story clear of inordinate bleakness.
Primarily a setup for subsequent novels, but the boy-dragon duo makes this an admirable tale all its own.