Money is a form of alchemy," says Mother Zenobia, the kindly head of the Sisters of the Lobster Orphanage.
"It turns kind normal people into greed-mongers, intent only on acquisitiveness." Jasper Fforde has one of those effervescent imaginations that never throws in one joke when he can fit in two or three, but he also has a provocatively serious purpose. He creates his mad but logical parallel version of the Welsh Marches with loving detail.
The Last Dragonslayer stars Jennifer Strange, a teenage foundling who runs Kazam Mystical Arts Management. This Hereford-based company uses the now-failing power of wizards to do such mundane jobs as installing domestic electrical circuits by telepathy or delivering live organs by flying carpet.
The staff are temperamental, but some of them are soothsayers and the despotic King Snodd IV wants to know the exact time of the death of the last surviving dragon, so that he can grab the Dragonlands, 350 acres of virgin territory so far protected by a force-field that reduces anyone who touches it to a pile of ash. Except, that is, for the Dragonslayer, the enforcer of the arrangement set up by a mighty wizard who cooped up the dragons. He can come and go freely; his duty is to protect the dragons if they behave and kill them if they don't.
Jennifer, a girl of unusual rectitude, is rightly suspicious of Snodd's motives and those of Consolidated Stuff, a global business acquiring resources and power faster than you can say Walmart. But how can a teenager combat such forces? Only with the help of the endearing Tiger Prawn, another resourceful orphan, and the Quarkbeast, a dog with teeth like Edward's scissorhands. And of course Bert Spalding, the Dragonslayer, who turns out to be a decrepit 130-year-old who wants to trick Jennifer into taking on his role. When she meets the ancient and ailing dragon, Maltcassion, she decides she should protect him and the dragonlands.
Fforde's classic structure satisfies in the way that all good fairy stories do. Jennifer is given Exhorbitus, a sword so sharp that it cuts carbide as if it was a paper bag, and the Dragonslayer's bullet-proof Rolls-Royce. But it will be her inner resources that generate the brilliant twist that brings together all the strands of the tale into a magnificent climax.