Dinosaurs steal the show in fun YA fantasy adventure

"Sauragia," by J.S. Allen. (J.S.A. Books/TNS)

Is that a dinosaur? Yes, it is ... welcome to Jurassic Park. Just kidding! No, you haven’t stumbled upon some ill-conceived theme park, nor have you traveled 65 million years into the past. But that is, in fact, a dinosaur — several, actually. You’ve entered J.S. Allen’s unforgettable “Sauragia.”

Here, dinosaurs hold court, wage war and do just about everything you’d expect characters to do in a fantasy novel, apart from wearing shoes (although that would be quite the sight, wouldn’t it?).

Young Astron, a “wide-eyed farm boy” from the South Country with little in his possession aside from the family sword slung at his side, has traveled to Saurahall, “the finest city in the entire Realm of Cardolin,” seeking a position among King Henrik’s guard. The son of beloved former guard Argon, the palace’s inhabitants welcome Astron with open arms. Although he’s a bit rough around the edges, earning him the skeptical eye of Princess Alyssa, Astron shows great promise. With that warrior’s glint in his eye, very few doubt he’ll live up to his father’s shining legacy.

A foreigner with a certain air of mystery about him, Astron quickly becomes something of an awe-inspiring curiosity among the younger guards, many of whom believe the scars on his forearms to be the mark of heroic exploits rather than a childhood accident. Astron, honest and humble, tries to squash these misleading rumors, even when an acquaintance sees it as an opportunity to bolster his status among the other dinosaurs.

It’s not long, however, before Astron has made real friends at the palace: Rob, a chatty dinosaur, sometimes exhaustively so, who becomes Astron’s castle guide; Johnny, a talented runner who shares Astron’s love of the outdoors and to whom Astron finds himself instantly attracted; Princess Alyssa, who eventually warms up to Astron; and even Richard Torilis, the Captain of the Guard himself, who served under Astron’s father in his youth. Less than a week into his arrival in Saurahall, Astron’s place among the guard and within the city appears as secure as can be.

Summer has arrived, bringing with it a festival to celebrate the change of season, but not far outside the walls of Saurahall, less pleasant change marches toward the city. King Edward the Slayer, a ruthless warlord who has managed to unite several squabbling tribes into one formidable force, has set his hungry eyes on Cardolin. The citizens of the kingdom, living peacefully and prosperously under Henrik the Wise, haven’t seen war in decades. When most of their experienced warriors are captured or killed in the initial fight, the remaining forces turn to Astron.

Admittedly, dinosaurs seem an unusual choice for fantasy, but that’s part of “Sauragia’s” charm. (And what are dragons if not flying dinosaurs?) It’s not long before readers shed any initial reservations and find themselves fully enmeshed in Allen’s world of sword-fighting dinos.

And that immersion is no accident. Allen has crafted his narrative purposefully, including amusing, thematic twists on common turns of phrase: “Gentleman” becomes “gentlesaur” and “hand-to-hand combat” becomes “claw-to-claw combat.” While strategizing, the king calls for discretion noting, “We don’t want any idle talk to reach the wrong ear slits, do we?” Allen has even transformed narrative transitions like “on the other hand” into “on the other claw.”

“Sauragia” is a fun and memorable adventure to be sure. It offers readers the best parts of any fantasy — bloody battles, a dangerous quest, formidable foes and a hint of romance — dressed up in reptilian scales, claws and tails. And this novel is only the beginning: the adventures of Astron and his friends continue in “Sauragia: Journey to the Red Mountain.”

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