The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede encompasses four novels set in one world — and be warned ahead of time: Your enjoyment of this series is by no means guaranteed just because you liked the first book. Each book is quite different, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
First things first: If we were only talking about book #1, Dealing with Dragons, my enthusiasm would be much higher. In Dealing with Dragons, we meet Cimorene, a princess who doesn’t want the typical Happily Ever After with a handsome prince, fine gowns, and a kingdom to be pampered in. So Cimorene runs away and finds herself a large dragon, Kazul, who just so happens to need a princess of her own. In this world, princesses serve dragons — some willingly, some not so much — usually until they are rescued by a brave knight who comes to free them from “captivity”. Cimorene has no patience for such nonsense, and soon finds herself an indispensable assistant to Kazul, keeping house, observing dragon politics, learning about magic, and warding off dangerous wizards who want to steal the dragon’s magic. The book breaks gender roles in all sorts of interesting and unusual ways; my favorite is that the leader of the dragons is called King, which denotes a position, not a person. Kazul is a female dragon, but is still able to vie for the position of King…. and woe to anyone who mistakenly refers to her as the Queen.
Unfortunately, in my view, the focus shifts from book to book. Dealing with Dragons is the only book of the series I rated as 5 stars on Goodreads. I loved Cimorene’s courage and brains, the clever wordplay, and the way Cimorene defies expectations to become the person she wants to be. But suddenly, in book #2 (Searching for Dragons), Cimorene is a supporting player, and instead, the story is told from the point of view of Mendanbar, the reluctant king of the Enchanted Forest. Mendanbar’s story intersects with Cimorene’s as they go on a quest together to find out who is draining magic out of the Enchanted Forest and to rescue the kidnapped Kazul. Mendanbar and Cimorene have good chemistry, and Mendanbar is a fine leading man, but unfortunately, the zippiness of Cimorene’s grrrl power is a bit more subdued here.
In Book #3 (Calling on Dragons), we barely see our familiar characters at all, as the focus shifts once again, this time to the witch Morwen, a supporting player in the earlier books. I came close to abandoning the series altogether early on in this book. True confession: I have a dislike for talking animals, particularly when there’s an overabundance of them — and this book has more than enough to go around. Within the first few chapters, we meet all twelve of Morwen’s cats, each of whom has a name and a distinct personality and contributes to conversation, as well as a bewitched bunny named Killer who transforms first into a six-foot-tall bunny and eventually into a blue, winged, flying donkey. Killer is meant to be the comic relief, but is more annoying than funny most of the time. There’s a quest and an adventure that ends up involving Cimorene and Mendanbar, but they’re quite peripheral. The magical adventure aspects of the book become more enjoyable by the end, but there’s a lot of space taken up by new characters, odd magical rules, and never-ending journeying.
And then we come to the final book, Talking to Dragons, in which there’s a brand-new main character, Daystar, who must travel into the Enchanted Forest and figure out for himself what the purpose of his quest is. There he meets a temperamental young fire-witch named Shiara — clearly there as his love interest — and encounters talking lizards, elves, dragons, and dwarves before arriving at a climactic battle scene. I won’t tell you how Daystar’s story intersects with the characters from the earlier books (spoilers!), but they are all connected and come together for an exciting and satisfying conclusion.
As a series, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles feels a bit disjointed. The shift in main characters from book to book didn’t really appeal to me. I suppose the intent is to broaden the scope of the world of the Enchanted Forest, but in my opinion, Cimorene and Kazul are the most interesting characters — and once they leave center stage, the story loses some of its charm. I was never bored exactly (although I was awfully close during the talking cat chapters), but I did find my attention wandering from time to time, and I found it a challenge to get into each new book, where we readers are required to leave behind the characters we’ve become fond of and start fresh with with a whole bunch of new ones.
All that said, let me now point out that I read this series in partnership with my 12-year-old son — and from that regard, I’d say the series was a success. My kiddo is a very reluctant reader, and so to encourage him, we read these books in tandem. He enjoyed the stories quite a bit, liked the action sequences involving dragons and wizards especially, and liked that there were plenty of funny scenes, humorous dialogue, and even some hints of danger (nothing too life-threatening, but still risky business).
Bottom line: While the Enchanted Forest Chronicles doesn’t strike me as strong enough to really hold adult attention, I do think it’s a great choice for middle grade readers, either to read on their own or as a very fun parent-kiddo reading partnership. And as an alternative for those who aren’t looking for a multi-book series or don’t like the sound of the focus changing from book to book, I think Dealing with Dragons would work perfectly well as a stand-alone. As the best of the bunch, it’s certainly a great read — and maybe if I’d stopped there, I’d have avoided the frustrations I had with the subsequent books.