A sensitive, occasionally painful story about troubled teens, and a cross-dimensional adventure featuring aerial battles between fire-breathing dragons and drones armed with machine guns – at first, there seems to be very little in common between two new middle-grade novels by Oshawa, Ontario, author Wesley King. While OCDaniel uses humour and realism to fight stigmas and stereotypes about people who suffer from mental illness, Dragons vs. Drones mostly delivers on the promise of its title (which sounds uncannily like the product of a late-night brainstorming session by the creators of Sharknado). What the books share is King’s ability to turn seemingly unpromising premises into undeniably satisfying stories.
The dedication page of OCDaniel reads: “For OCD sufferers, hope is rarely found alone.” This sentiment also serves as a kind of epigraph and central theme for the story of a young boy under constant threat from the obsessions and wayward patterns of his own brain. At night, Daniel brushes his teeth for so long and so aggressively that his gums bleed. Then he spends hours flicking his bedroom light on and off before he can even think of going to sleep.
All of this sounds like heavy going, but while King’s novel has some difficult emotional moments, it’s not at all a hard slog. Daniel, an amateur writer and very reluctant football player, narrates his own troubles with self-deprecating humour: “I first realized I was crazy on a Tuesday. I mean, I suspected it before, obviously, but I’d been hoping it was just a phase, like when I was three and I wanted to be a fire truck.” The novel also has some thriller elements, courtesy of Daniel’s schoolmate Sara, who has numerous mental health issues of her own, and who enlists him in a search for the truth about her father. (She believes he was murdered; the truth turns out to be much darker.)
With its two very likeable and human protagonists, and its forward-charging plot – which packs in a murder-mystery, some teenage rom-com moments, and even a few football playoff thrills – OCDaniel is the rare issue-driven novel that seeks to entertain first, raise awareness second.
Dragons vs. Drones, on the other hand, puts entertainment first, second, and third. Despite its cheesy title and cover art – the tween reader in my house snickered every time she saw the book lying around – DvD is a solid, unpretentious yarn.
Marcus Brimley, a 12-year-old Virginia kid with kick-ass computer skills, has been trying to find out what happened to his father, a CIA analyst who disappeared when Marcus was four. Marcus’s search focuses on the violent thunderstorms that hit the town in a suspiciously predictable pattern. During one such storm, Marcus is transported to an alternate dimension – pursued by a handful of killer drones – to a land called Dracone, where humans are just taking the first steps into industrialization. Oh, and there are fire-breathing dragons.
Marcus quickly befriends Dree, a talented young blacksmith with unresolved family issues of her own. They soon discover they share the gift of being able to not only touch fire (and dragons) without being burnt, but to create flames at will.
The speed at which Marcus accepts all this strains credulity almost as much as the dragons themselves, and the prose here is frequently heavy-handed, but there is very little time in King’s breakneck narrative to worry about plausibility or stylistic polish. This is a novel whose primary directives are to provide cool drone-on-dragon action, and to serve as the first instalment in a series (the book ends with a cliffhanger).
Neither of King’s new novels is destined to become a modern classic, and I suspect that given the choice between OCD teens and OMG dragons, a lot of young readers will choose the latter, but both deliver the goods.