Laurie McKay will read from and answer questions about Realm Breaker, the final installment in her middle grade contemporary fantasy series The Last Dragon Charmer. What makes this particular book launch — held Friday, March 10, at Spellbound Children’s Bookshop — unique is that McKay will be doing it in the city where most of her book’s action takes place.
When readers first meet Caden, the series’ protagonist, he’s questing in Razzon, the magical land of his birth. Soon, however, a mysterious spell transports him, a young sorceress named Brynne, and Sir Horace, Caden’s royal charger, to this world. They find themselves on the streets of downtown Asheville. In quick succession, Caden encounters a bookstore that’s obviously Malaprop’s, a chocolate shop that’s obviously the Chocolate Fetish, and a wooded area near a large stone hotel that any local will recognize as the Grove Park Inn.
McKay says the decision to set her work in Asheville came very early on. “Since I have dragons in the book,” McKay says, “Asheville stood out because it has this fiery name. It has these ancient mountains. And it seems like the right place for a dragon.”
A North Carolina native, McKay has been visiting Asheville for years. “We came when I was 10, and when I was a teenager, and when I was an adult,” she says. During the ’40s and ’50s, her father used to come up for day trips with his parents. So, as a third-generation Asheville fan, McKay saw it as a natural setting for a story in which a magical world interacts with the ordinary one.
“You have the Blue Ridge and Appalachian area, and you have this trendy city, and it’s kind of a neat juxtaposition,” she says. “It’s always struck me that Asheville is kind of part of two different worlds in some ways already.”
The Dragon Charmer series is full of local color: Over the course of Caden’s adventures, he encounters vegan restaurants, a school cafeteria that features organic farm-to-table fare, and a local foster-mother who makes a living selling scrap metal statuary.
The series also features more local landmarks. In Quest Maker, the second installment, McKay introduces Biltmore (“the large house … that locals mistook for a castle,” sniffs Caden, whose blue-blood tastes and chivalric honesty supply much of the books’ humor). And Realm Breaker highlights four more local spots as the villains work the cataclysmic four-part spell that drives the action. French Broad River Park makes an appearance, as does Asheville’s downtown, the woods on the Biltmore Estate and the school (modeled on Asheville High) that Jaden and Brynne attend.
“That building inspires me,” McKay says, adding that she drew on its imposing architecture and its hillside setting as she imagined Primrose Charter, where Caden and Brynne go to middle school.
“I’ve even seen the YouTube video of the ghost,” she says. “I thought: a ghost? Maybe a dragon. Maybe magic!”
Although the school’s outside is inspired by its real-life counterpart, what goes on inside is informed by McKay’s years of experience as a teacher. Primrose Charter, however, is weird even for a school: The principal looks like a church lady, but is actually a shape-shifting dragon, and all the teachers are villains banished from Caden’s magical homeland. “I felt a little bad having all my teachers be evil when I have so many friends who are teachers and who aren’t evil,” McKay says, laughing. “I have several friends who are math teachers, and the major villain is a math teacher, and they kept asking, ‘Is that person going to be redeemed?’”
McKay is looking forward to her appearance at Spellbound, where she’ll be featured during one of the store’s “Sneak Peek” events. She’s glad to be marking the release of the final book in the town where it’s set. “All the bookstores and all the booksellers have been great in Asheville,” she says, “and in Hendersonville, too.”
With the Last Dragon Charmer concluded, McKay is working on another book, which she describes as Southern gothic with some elements of fantasy and supernatural. It does take place in the same world as Realm Breaker, and also in N.C., but even though she says she’s fantasized about writing a story that brings all the characters together, the new one has a slightly different setting: The beach.
WHO: Laurie McKay launches Realm Breaker
WHERE: Spellbound Children’s Bookshop
WHEN: Friday, March 10, 6p.m. $10 ($16.50 including book purchase)