Book review: Earth Dragon, Fire Hare by Ken Catran

This book is in bookshops now.

Despite some of the reservations I have about Earth Dragon, Fire Hare (I’ll get to those), I like this book. I like the cover; I like the characters; I like the writing; I like the story.

The latest offering from prolific award-winning children’s writer Ken Catran, Earth Dragon, Fire Hare is a boy’s book: soldiers and war and blood and explosions – not to mention a surprising look at culture, loyalty and friendship.

The story follows the parallel lives of Ng, a young Chinese Malayan, and Peter, a New Zealand soldier, in the years leading up to and during the little-known and long-forgotten Malayan Emergency (later known as the Communist Insurgency War), when Britain and her Allies attempted to rid Malaya of Communism.

Growing up on either side of the political line, the book jumps between the lives of the two soldiers as they fight for the ideals of their countries. Bound together as natural partners under their Chinese horoscope birth signs, Ng and Peter are fated to meet in battle and become unlikely comrades.

It’s not surprising, really, given Catran’s screenwriting credits, that the narrative is written exactly as if you’d watch it as a film. Having written for TV and film, Catran clearly knows a thing or two about introducing characters using an action-driven plot and maintain a non-stop pace right to the very end. He hooks the reader immediately, and has crafted a well-written, interesting (Catran gets bonus points for writing about a war I’d never heard nor read of) and easy read.

But, like I said, I have some reservations. Some parts are, well… a bit contrived, actually. The book begins with a quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem El Dorado, which is used as a maxim by the New Zealand soldier. I found myself puzzled by its use and, even after Googling it to see if I had missed some hidden meaning, still have no idea what the point was.

In much the same way, the Chinese zodiac theme is, for all intensive purposes, supposed to be a major part of the book – but I found it a bit forced. It’s icons feature on the cover and throughout the book, and the zodiac is the main premise for joining the two main characters together – which is fine, but it’s completely ignored until two-thirds of the way through the book. Because of this, it failed to establish any real relationship between the two characters and essentially undermined the novel’s climax. A disappointing end, really, after thoroughly enjoying myself up until that point.

So – a good premise. I love that it is about a war that has been largely ignored by history, and I appreciate that sides aren’t taken and there is no right or wrong answer. Catran could easily have made this an exercise in British/New Zealand imperialism and that might have been perfectly acceptable, but instead he has stayed completely objective and done a great job of questioning ideals about truth, freedom and loyalty. But, ultimately, what could have been a great story is just a good story compromised by a couple of contrived narrative tricks.

Reviewed by Keri Trim

Earth Dragon, Fire Hare
by Ken Catran
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781869509415