The year is 1835, and Charles Darwin is immersed in his groundbreaking discoveries in the Galapagos Islands. Assisting him is former cabin boy, Syms Covington, cherry-picked by Darwin to be his assistant collector, hunter, and right-hand man. So far, so historically accurate. Darwin’s Dragons by Lindsay Galvin begins its flight of fancy in a gap in Covington’s real-life journal, where she steps in to conjure up a wonderfully cinematic read, involving a mysterious isle, restless volcano, and fire-breathing golden winged beasts. This Galapagan adventure could rewrite history.
The book opens with the young Syms and Mr Darwin, merrily riding giant tortoises across a lava field. Although we tend to think of Darwin as being quite beardy and serious, he possessed a lively streak, and it’s captured here in one of many factual snippets that Galvin cleverly weaves into the story.
It’s as they row back to the waiting H.M.S Beagle that calamity strikes, as a storm springs up, sweeping poor Syms overboard. He finds himself washed ashore a hitherto unexplored island, one that’s unfortunately possessed of a spitting, smoking volcano, and a terrifying flying beast that seems intent on scorching his bones. As Syms describes its glistening scales and fiery breath, we realise that he must surely be in the company of a dragon. But everyone knows that dragons are mythical. In terms of physiology and the laws of physics, such a creature cannot possibly exist.
Recalling Darwin’s maxim that ‘open eyes lead to an open mind,’ Syms embarks on an adventure that calls for dealing with boiling lava, bats and buccaneers, plus aforementioned murderous dragon. How will he fare in his own personal ‘survival of the fittest’ contest?
In this fabulously colourful and thrilling read, Syms’ exploits continue on to Sydney and London, with supporting roles for both Queen Victoria and London Zoo. Galvin’s dedicated background research allows her to combine history, science and joyous imagination with a narrative that also poses questions about conservation. Impressive!
Darwin’s Dragons by Lindsay Galvin is published by Chicken House, 256 pages.