3 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace is a coming of age contemporary fantasy story of a young teenage girl who discovers that she is a weredragon (like a werewolf with scales and fiery breath). The fact that this is the first of a series of books leads to some compromises that detract a little from the overall quality, but nothing especially egregious. It is probably aimed primarily at younger readers, but I found the earnestness and unapologeticness of the book quite refreshing. The characters aren’t especially sophisticated, but they function fairly well even if they aren’t entrancing with their multitude of fascinating facets and subtleties. The story, similarly, is a little stereotypical for the genre but proceeds along quickly and smoothly, still managing some unexpected twists that keep you entertained. Overall, I was quite surprised that I enjoyed myself and would recommend the book especially to younger readers or those with an aversion to darker themes.
Jennifer Scales is a typical eighth grader with typical interests such as sports and hanging out with her friends until she starts to exhibit supernatural abilities and eventually metamorphosizes into a big scaly dragon. With her typical life lost to her forever, she must begin to adapt to life as a weredragon and find some sort of balance between normality and her draconic heritage.
The metaphor of puberty clings to much of the narrative like an unwanted, uninteresting guest that refuses to leave. There very well might be new things to say about the pubescent process but the authors certainly don’t venture to contribute anything that hasn’t been said innumerable times before. Perhaps someone less well read and closer to their own puberty could manage to wring some measure of interest out of this long-exhausted subject, but for me it was the principal weakness of the book.
This puberty issue even leaks over a little bit into weakening the characters, as it forces the primary characters of the Scales family to reduce themselves to parent and child archetypes fairly frequently to facilitate the belabored coming of age narrative. When they aren’t being frustrated parents or rebellious idiot teenagers, the characters are decent and there are a few surprises that keep them interesting. Hopefully, in later books this issue will be discarded and the authors can focus on more interesting issues.
Other than the hackneyed coming of age/puberty themes and the roles straightjacketed onto the characters because of them, the rest of the book is quite good. As a contemporary fantasy, it discards most of the typical whining and moaning characters with fantastic powers usually do and lets them actually enjoy doing magical things like any sane person actually would. Rather than spending huge sections of the book trying to explain the magical with weak pseudo-scientific babble, the authors just accept the fantastic elements and run with them.
Similarly, it dispenses with most of the hand wringing “realism” with which most contemporary fantasy settings are burdened, and we mostly see dragons flying around blowing fireballs at things rather than getting some exhaustive pseudo-paleontological analysis and half-hearted musings on how dragons could be real despite all their anatomical impossibilities. Most of the decisions about the magical elements in the story are clearly included because they are fun and exciting rather than conforming to some strict aesthetic of how magic should behave in a Newtonian universe. Dragons breathe fire, have cattle-prod electric tails, and can smash the ground to summon serpents, not because it’s strictly necessary for the the story, but because it makes things more lively.
Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace is a fun, imaginative, naive romp with a few tired cliches thrown on top.
Comparisons to Other Authors:
The unashamed fun of Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace made me think a bit of the late Robert Asprin’s early works, the fantasy Myth series starting with Another Fine Myth and his sci-fi space opera/military Phule series starting with Phule’s Company. Both of these series would also be appropriate for adolescents, as Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace is.