When we first meet him, Timothy Freshwater is a fairly unpleasant character. “Too smart for his own good” and perpetually bored, he’s quick with the backtalk and flip remarks, dismissive of anyone who isn’t as smart as he is (which, he believes, is most people) and generally surly. The 11-year-old is also pretty unhappy. His father is too busy to connect with him, his mother (a second-rate actress) is almost entirely absent from his life, he has no friends, and he’s just been expelled from the last school in the city.
All of this changes, as one might expect, when Timothy meets a dragon. That’s the set-up for Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate, the enthralling and impressive new novel from Toronto writer, actor, and teacher Adrienne Kress. Set in the same whimsical (and often surprisingly violent) universe as her debut, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, Kress has crafted an engrossing tale laced subtly with its own set of valuable lessons – ones she is careful never to oversell. Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate might be about growth and selflessness and generosity, but kids don’t want to read that stuff: they want stories about pirates, ninjas, epic battles, sewer chases, and dragons, which Kress delivers in spades.
The dragon in question is Mr. Shen, a mighty beast who has been trapped in human form for a thousand years. Almost despite himself, Timothy takes on the task of getting Mr. Shen to China, where he must scale an ancient monument, the Dragon’s Gate, before the end of a festival marking the 125th Year of the Dragon in order to regain his true form. It’s an epic journey, and one that will keep readers turning the pages. And when the red sails of the Ironic Gentleman appear, fans of the earlier book will be hard-pressed to contain their cheers.
Kress employs a deceptively casual tone, an ease that belies the complexity of her prose style. While some might feel uncomfortable with her use of authorial asides, she never abuses the technique (unlike some Lemony Snickets one might mention), and these rejoinders and comments add to the overall sense that Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate is an old-fashioned tale, being told by a gifted storyteller, to an audience of one.