[This review contains mild spoilers.]
It's — ahem — bending the truth just a teensy bit for The Ice Dragon to be marketed as the "highly anticipated children's book debut of George R. R. Martin," considering that this story was originally published ages ago in an Ace anthology titled Dragons of Light. But hey, that's just the publishing world for you. And as this story has been out of print in the intervening time, there's nothing wrong with bringing it back with a little fanfare, especially considering the stature its author has attained since. Its fall 2006 re-release is welcome.
Yet though this is very much a kid's story, it's often a dark and distressing one. As in Martin's later (and very adult) A Song of Ice and Fire saga, the world in which The Ice Dragon is set is one wracked with warfare and danger, in which death and peril are never far away. Even our heroine, lonely young Adara, is linked to death. A "winter child" who doesn't feel the cold and lacks the emotional responses of normal children (a metaphor for autism?), her mother died giving birth to her. The pervasive sense of melancholy lends itself to some effective drama, of course. But parents looking for a charming, lighthearted tale about a plucky little girl and her friendly dragon would be advised to look elsewhere. Tor's recommended readership is about ten and up. It's possible that kids any younger might burst into tears at the ending. No bedtime story this.
The little tale — which only reaches a hundred pages thanks to a large font size and numerous illustrations — is about what happens when Adara befriends an ice dragon, a creature as alone as she is. During each winter, upon her birthday, Adara runs off into the wilderness near her father's farm and flies around on the dragon's back. But war rages in the north. When the kingdom's enemies, with their superior numbers of fire-breathing dragons, break through the front lines, it's down to Adara to rescue her father and her siblings. You can pretty much figure out what happens from here on out.
I'm not a parent, so I really don't have the firsthand knowledge of just how well the effectiveness of the story's message — that even the most humble of us can become heroic when the chips are down — would offset the final chapters' frightening and violent imagery. On the one hand, it's a good thing for children's literature not to sugar-coat the horrors of the adult world, and to give young readers role models of heroism and sacrifice to show them how the courage to confront evil exists in all of us if we let it. And Adara's courage allows her to grow. On the other hand — watch out! The unflinching approach to tragedy that makes the Ice and Fire novels so powerful feels, in a children's story, a little too brutal. You'll have to decide for yourself, naturally, whether your kid is old enough for the spectacle of Adara watching her uncle burning to death.
Okay, I'm going to hedge my bets and go with a three-star bottom line, because the story does work (it's a rare Martin story that does not, at the very least, do that) and its brevity and language are completely accessible to children without talking down to them. Probably the most reliable reviews will be those that come from kids themselves.
Finally, a word about the illustrations in the 2006 edition, which I found very disappointing. Yvonne Gilbert is a veteran childrens' book illustrator who has evidently won loads of acclaim in her native England. Yet her illustrations here are simply dreadful. For the most part they are very sketchy pencil drawings, and it doesn't seem as if she takes the time to research anything. In one drawing early in the book, shown at right, Adara's uncle Hal, who leads a platoon of dragons in the war, is shown wearing presumably medieval armor, including a breastplate and shoulder guards. (Also, note how Hal is standing with his right leg raised. Poor foreshortening makes his right knee look like it just sprouts directly from his hip.) But later in the book, when wounded soldiers are returning home from the devastation at the front lines, they are drawn in uniforms that look Napoleonic. Also, Adara is shown in two drawings at the book's climax, one where she's riding the ice dragon and one where she's running to her farmhouse after the final battle. She's wearing a different outfit in the second drawing. Earlier, we see a drawing of Adara lying in the snow, and her right arm is at least twice as long as her left. I don't care how many awards Ms. Gilbert has, this is just bad and sloppy. I suppose this kind of piece-by-piece art criticism might strike some as nitpicking, but illustrations are an important part of a children's book. And if the ice dragon deserved better than what he gets in the story, the story itself, and its young readers, deserve better too.
[Note: In 2014, Tor reissued this book yet again, this time with far superior illustrations by Luis Royo. So the criticisms in the preceding paragraph are irrelevant to the new edition.]