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It starts off with Shimmer, the exiled dragon princess roaming ancient China in the form of an old human woman. She meet the kindhearted kitchen boy, Thorn, who is mistreated by his caretaker. The two form an unlikely friendship, and after saving his life from an enchanted paper servant, Shimmer decides to take him under her wing.
It turns out that Shimmer has been wandering for years in search of the witch Civet. Over a hundred years ago, Civet had used her powers to drain the Inland Sea, Shimmer's former home, of all its water, leaving nothing behind but a desert wasteland of salt flats.
Together, Shimmer and Thorn travel towards where they believe Civet might be headed, meeting up with the mischievous Monkey, who both hinders and aids them on their quest.
This novel provides examples of:
- A Dragon And Her Boy: Laurence Yep said that the idea of a dragon and her pet boy stole the show from a story that was originally supposed to be all about Monkey.
- Abusive Parents: The innkeeper who adopted Thorn is quite cruel to him and beats him often.
- Anthropomorphic Personification: The King Within the River. Three guesses as to what he personifies.
- Arranged Marriage: When Civet was young, her parents married her off to a river spirit, the King Within the River. That... did not go as planned.
- Broken Bird: Civet.
- Conveniently an Orphan: Thorn.
- Disc One Final Boss: This is only the first book of a series of four. Defeating Civet is far from the end to all problems.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Upon escaping her arranged marriage (after a thousand years, mind you), and seeing her former home had industrialized, Civet is overcome by loss and decides that dragons are responsible. She destroys the Inland Sea where the Inland dragons live, by taking away all the water, and then uses the water to destroy River Glen, her former village.
- Doomed Hometown: The Inland Sea. Subverted in that it was already destroyed by the start of the novel. Consequently, when Civet releases the waters of the blue pebble onto a city she dooms another hometown.
- Dragon Rider: Thorn, of course.
- Crossing the Desert: Thorn and Shimmer cross the former Inland Sea on foot. After all the water was taken away, all that is left is salt, and the vast space where it used to be is covered with large salt flats. The glare from the very white salt temporarily blinds the two after a few days.
- Harmless Lady Disguise: Subverted. While Shimmer is actually female, she's not human, and disguises herself as an old woman to appear harmless.
- I Ate What?: Thorn persuades Civet into letting him cook a meal for her and he hides one of Monkey's hairs in her bowl of noodles. And after she eats them, he speaks the magic words that cause the hair to change into an unbreakable chain.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Monkey, who is based off the Monkey King from Journey to the West. He's infamous for being a trickster and causing all sorts of trouble, and initially he drugs both Shimmer and Thorn so they can't interfere with his plans. However, he does end up helping the two in the end, and in subsequent books, joins them in their journey.
- MacGuffin: In addition to the listed Mineral Mac Guffins, there's also Baldy's Bowl/Cauldron, another artifact that can boil away and hold large amounts of water, similar to Civet's blue pebble, but can be used more than once.
- Mars Needs Women: The King Within the River, a river spirit, demands Civet as a bride.
- Mineral MacGuffin: Several.
- Shimmer's dream pearl - a magical artifact that enhances magic powers and creates illusions.
- The blue pebble - an enchanted pebble that holds all the waters of the Inland Sea
- The mist stone - a rock that allows the user to transform into a cloud and back again.
- A Mythology Is True: Debuting in this book are The Monkey King, The Old Mother of the Waters (Civet), and the King Within the River.
- Our Dragons Are Different
- Parental Substitute: Shimmer, to Thorn.
- Really Seven Hundred Years Old: The once-human Civet is over a thousand. That's pretty old, even for a dragon, but she's stuck in the body of a teenager for the rest of her life... or unlife, if you want to get technical.