I’m going to start this review by saying that every year, I set myself a reading goal. In previous years, it has been to complete the Popsugar Reading Challenge, or to just read 50 books within the year; sometimes I’m successful, and other times, I’m a miserable failure.
This year a friend convinced me the right challenge to set myself was to clear out some of my to-be-read (TBR) closet. A good idea, given that some of the books on my Goodreads to-be-read shelf have been sitting unread and unloved since 2011… I hadn’t realised it had been quite so long!
Thus, I came to buy myself a copy of Scott Ciencin’s Dinotopia: Windchaser (1995), and was subsequently surprised at its rather diminutive size. As a kid I remember watching a three-part series of Dinotopia on the television, loving every minute of the plasticky sets and terrible CGI dinosaurs. I forgot all about its existence for a while, before realising a couple of years ago back in 2016 that there were books set in the same world. Like I said, I’ve got some throwbacks going on by reading books I should have gotten round to a fair few years ago. It was a little bit difficult to work out which Dinotopia book was the first in the series – as I think there are actually a few different series, with multiple authors – but as most lists begin with Windchaser as their first point of call, I decided to start there.
Windchaser is a book about two boys, Raymond and Hugh, who are stranded on the island of Dinotopia after a mutiny occurs upon the ship they were sailing to Australia on. Raymond is the son of the ship’s surgeon, who was also lost to the sea in the mutiny, while Hugh is a rather stereotypical London street thief, complete with the typical London accent. Together they are both thrust into a completely alien environment, and must learn to navigate it whilst also learning more about themselves and their capabilities.
The setting of the island of Dinotopia is continually developed throughout the book along with its plot, and you can tell that detailed thought obviously went into the world-building of this series. You get the sense as a reader that the Dinotopia universe is much bigger than you can at first see, but thankfully all of this worldbuilding is not dumped on you all at once. A quiet place, Dinotopia is a land where dinosaurs and humans co-exist. Dinosaurs can talk, and are quite the literary beasts; they certainly aren’t presented in the traditional violent, man-eating sense, and are just as entertaining as the two boys are to read about.
My favourite setting of the book has to be the Waterfall City, the capital city of Dinotopia, where streets are interspersed with water. The peacefulness of the island did bring up some questions for me early on in the novel, such as ‘how is it so peaceful?’. I wondered where the twists and turns and action beats were going to come from to further the plot in the future, given it was almost dull how quaint everything was to begin with. But as became quickly apparent, the plot here was very much character-driven, rather than conforming to the traditional fantasy ideology of ‘defeat the big bad villain threatening the pure and beautiful mystical place’. It was rather refreshing, actually, to read a fantasy book which did deviate from this form. Though the Tyrannosaurus Rex was mentioned a couple of times throughout the book, regarded as a far-off threat, it never actually came into play in the book very much, and I respect that. Perhaps it’ll be a fall-back plot point in a different, future book, and readers will get to experience its terror then.
The quality of Raymond and Hugh’s characterisations and their character building is surprisingly good throughout the book, with Raymond moving through different stages of grief from the loss of his father, and Hugh learning to accept a new way of life in Dinotopia and maturing slowly from savvy street-thief into a peaceful Dinotopian. Rather than having Hugh change his mindset immediately – as some books unrealistically do, having one event that suddenly changes everything about a character – Windchaser spends more time working on Hugh’s character, with a gradual transition in his personality that is much more satisfying for the reader occuring over the book’s 150 pages.
For a children’s book, Windchaser gets surprisingly deep when it comes to its characters, showcasing a lot of development in the two obviously grieving boys. Raymond is seen to grieve for the loss of his father, while Hugh mourns the loss of his comfortable and familiar world with all its known faults and the hierarchies of society. They grow to be two much more mature, well-rounded characters that are easy to sympathise with, and it becomes a lot easier to understand their motivations.
Raymond’s growth certainly makes up a lot of the plot in the second half of the book, as it is he who is predominantly seen to bond with the injured Skybax Windchaser, and moving through his pain with the dinosaur. Although the friendship between Hugh and Raymond is obviously important, this second relationship is also stressed by Ciencin, with Windchaser initially introduced as a far off, almost mythical character, that slowly reveals himself to Raymond and the reader.
Setbacks in their friendship are included at points, which just adds realism, in my opinion, and makes reading about their relationship that little bit more engaging. As a reader you become much more invested in their friendship and become keen for it to succeed and be repaired, given that there is this instantaneous bond between them, borne of a realisation of common ground. But as with all true friendships between characters, these bonds take longer to form, with trials involving cliffs and danger along the way – but they are very satisfying to see unfold.
As with any book like this, set partially in the real world, suspension of disbelief is required. Looking back, I do have a few queries; how do the books in the library of Waterfall City not get mouldy? How do all the Dinotopians know Hugh and Raymond are new to the land, and that they haven’t just been hiding in some bushes somewhere for a sustained amount of time? What happened to all the other people on their ship?
Perhaps I’m just overthinking it, although when there’s a world as rich as this one, there seems like a wealth of areas to explore with the world-building. There’s a lot of character growth and change which I really liked, especially the gritty elements of coping with grief in different ways, but I feel like it could have been longer to do the world justice and explore the setting as well as the character relationships. So, overall, I would recommend the book to any readers who enjoy this kind of children’s fantasy, but would advise that a pinch of salt be taken with regard to some of the factual influences behind the narrative. It’s a highly enjoyable read, but one that felt a little rushed, and could have done with a little more attention to detail on the part of Ciencin.
A great little story with some lovely character building, but could have been more with closer detail on the world-building side. At points it skimmed over settings and characters without introducing them fully, making sections feel slightly rushed. A nice little story to wile away a couple of hours in the meantime, though!