The children of fiction, like Dorothy, Alice, the Darlings, always want to be somewhere else. They’re sad, frightened, or in danger, until they’re whisked away some place so magical, so amazing, that they don’t notice they’re still sad, frightened or, especially, in danger. These stories are never so much about the journeys as they are the transformations of the children, the measurable growing up they do over the arc of the story.
Raymond Nakajima, the narrator and eventual hero of Dragon Island, thinks his story is about his trip to see his abusive father in Japan, until his flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo is brought down on a mysterious island. Raymond isn’t sure what brought the plane down, but is sure it has something to do with the pale man he met in the airport and the red eyes he sees glowing in the sky just before the crash.
Fleeing the wreckage for the jungle, Raymond discovers a place teeming with creatures right out of a monster movie. He spends his first hours on the island cowering from the monsters. While these monsters may spur him into action, none loom as large as the presence of his father. He appears only briefly and never directly interacts with Raymond, but his physical absence is compensated by his emotional presence. The father is the voice of Raymond’s constant fear of his surroundings and, at the root of it all, the self doubt which plagues the boy.
Soon Raymond meets a girl his age named Kitsune, and together they trek across Kaiju Island toward her village. Along the way, Raymond acquires the sword of legendary Kaiju Island hero Kintaro and encounters nearly all the creatures and robots–yes, robots–the island has to offer. Eventually Kitsune and her people, the Toho, come to believe Raymond is a descendant of Kintaro and destined to rid the island of the threat of the evil Ningai Ura, an outcast determined to unleash the island’s monsters on the outside world.
Ura is a strong villain when he’s present, but his disappearance after initially facing Raymond and Kitsune in the caves beneath the island leaves the bad guy role largely vacant. Like all good villains, though, Ura makes a triumphant return for the book’s climax.
Though it’s aimed at younger readers, Dragon Island will appeal to adults with fond memories of thrilling Saturday morning cartoons of the ’70s and ’80s. Short chapters give the book a brisk pace and ratchet up the excitement of the cliffhangers. Like those old cartoons, the danger isn’t so much menacing as it is compelling, and we root for Raymond not only to survive but to thrive. Our hero suffers from a serious confidence deficit which he’s clearly meant to overcome. There are flashes of the heroic in Raymond, but his transformation is slow, causing frustration in his island friends and in his readers.
When Raymond finally becomes the hero he’s supposed to be, the transformation is not only emotional but physical. Without giving too much away, Raymond becomes the thing he’s been running from, and it’s easily one of the story’s best scenes.
Berryhill’s Island is populated with leathery winged dragons with bears’ bodies, giant turtles, robots, spaceships, and samurai warriors, but the Island itself is the books’ best character. It’s not a free for all, anything goes dumping ground for ideas and monsters, but a colorful, fully realized place worth exploring. It’s also a lot of fun.
The novel is packed with allusions and references, not just to the obvious Japanese movies and mythology, but to American pop music, games, and, most pronounced, the television show, Lost. The first few chapters read like an alternate, young adult version of that show’s pilot episode, a fun riff on the “mysterious island trope” and a loving homage. That show may not be on the radar of many in the book’s intended audience, but Berryhill’s fixed that. In some ways the book is a kind of primer, like a cool older brother nudging a kid and saying, “If you like that you’ll love this!”
Wearing one’s influences so prominently on the sleeve is tricky, because it can potentially draw unflattering parallels or pull the reader from the fictional world of the book they’re reading and into another. Here, the influences build, slowly at first, but more assured as the book progresses, adding color and depth to the world Berryhill created.