Seventeen-year-old Micah, enters the wyrmeweald full of hope to return home having made his fortune. But this is a land where wyrmes, fabulous dragon-like beasts, roam wild and reign supreme. In Wyrmeweald man is both hunter and hunted – and Micah may never return alive, let alone a hero… He soon finds a chance to prove his worth when he meets with Eli, a veteran tracker, and together they defend a rare whitewyrme egg and its precious hatchling. But the fledgling wyrme has its own guardian in the shape of the beautiful, brave and dangerous Thrace. Thrace and Micah should never mix – but the magnetism between them is strong. Together they join forces on a mission to rescue the hatchling – and seek vengeance for lost loved-ones.
The wyrmeweald is a fantastically imagined place of vertiginously rocky wildernesses and extremes of weather, a frontier where a person can make their fortune or die horribly in the attempt. It is the home to wyrmes (dragons!), various in size and temperament, and life on the weald revolves around the hunting of dragons and their eggs. Naturally, the people willing to track down wyrmes are a hardy-bordering-on-violent bunch and young ploughboy Micah has come to the weald to join their ranks, hoping to find his ‘returner’s wealth’ so that he can go back home a rich man and win over the girl he loves. So far so interesting.
There’s a lovely old western feel to this first trip into the wyrmeweald. The harsh environment is beautifully captured by Stewart’s writing and by Riddell’s illustrations, which are mostly long and thin, and run down the edge of the page for each new chapter, showing desolate outcrops and rock stacks. Between the two of them Stewart and Riddell immerse the reader in the massive landscape. And, of course, there are a few full-page illustrations that depict some of the many stunning breeds of wyrme encountered in the story, drawn in true Riddell-style, both comic and fey.
Micah himself is a satisfying YA hero. He’s a practical lad, and not helpless or whiney, although perhaps more trusting that the weald would tolerate. Fortunately, he falls in with experienced cragclimber Eli soon enough. With Eli’s help he learns (and we with him) about the people of the weald: the kith (who, like him, have come to the wyrmeweald in search of riches), the kin (strange individuals who have bonded with and ride larger wymes, and protect the long incubation of the wyrme eggs – called wyves – hidden amongst the cliffs and crags), and the keld (those who have tunnelled into the mountains in search of gemstones and ore and maybe become a little twisted down in the darkness). This first book mostly deal with the kith and kin, but we get a first glimpse of the sinister keld towards the end of this book that suggests they’ll feature more prominently in the next volume.
I have one criticism of Micah. He’s a sucker for a pretty face. First the master’s daughter on the farm, then later the kingirl Thrace, both of whom are, naturally, gorgeous. The male gaze, primarily Micah’s, if a little too heavy-handed and while I acknowledge that Stewart is consciously writing a story for older teens here (and giving his world a necessary harder edge that moves away from his and Riddell’s Edge Chronicles), I was uncomfortable with those parts of the book that hinted at rape and lingered a little long on Thrace’s body. He’s a teenage boy, I get it, but let’s focus on surviving the wyrmeweald, shall we?
What I wholeheartedly loved on the other hand, was the wonderfully descriptive language Stewart uses to create each scene. There are some awesome lone-wanderer-in-the-wilderness moments at the beginning when we’re introduced to Micah, and Stewart plays with compound words in such a way that this was a delight to read: the landscape is “dustblown”, the rocks “shrubpocked”, the sun “mistspun” and Micah is “frostlicked”, “crowtattered” and “gritscratched” in the early part of his journey. I could read this kind of writing all day long.
And, of course, the wyrmes themselves are awesome. A few precious chapters are told from within the wyrme world, and we witness the laying of an egg, a mating, and an exodus as the threat posed by the two-hides (people) becomes too great to ignore. We see plenty of other wyrmes from Micah, Eli and Thrace’s points of view, but there is something so sorrowful about the wyrme chapters that I’m most interested to see where this thread of the story will ultimately go.