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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Wings of Fire

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Wings of Fire

Edited by Jonathan Strahan and Marianne S. Jablon

“Stable of Dragons” by Peter S. Beagle
“The Rule of Names” by Ursula K. Le Guin
“The Ice Dragon” by George R.R. Martin
“Sobek” by Holly Black
“King Dragon” by Michael Swanwick
“The Laily Worm” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
“The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath” by Patricia A. McKillip
“The Bully and the Beast” by Orson Scott Card
“Concerto Accademico” by Barry M. Malzberg
“The Dragon’s Boy” by Jane Yolen
“The Miracle Aquilina” by Margo Lanagan
“Orm the Beautiful” by Elizabeth Bear
“Weyr Search” by Anne McCaffrey
“Paper Dragons” by James P. Blaylock
“Dragon’s Gate” by Pat Murphy
“In Autumn, A White Dragon Looks Over The Wide River” by Naomi Novik
“St. Dragon and the George” by Gordon R. Dickson
“The Silver Dragon” by Elizabeth A. Lynn
“The Dragons of Summer Gulch” by Robert Reed
“Berlin” by Charles de Lint
“Draco, Draco” by Tanith Lee
“The Dragon on the Bookshelf” by Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg
“Gwydion and the Dragon” by C.J. Cherryh
“The George Business” by Roger Zelazny
“Dragon’s Fin Soup” by S.P. Somtow
“The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” by Lucius Shephard

Reviewed by Craig W. Anderson

I must confess at the outset that my tank ran dry on dragon stories about a decade ago and I thought – mistakenly, as it turned out – that originality in dragon tales had vanished.

Well. That opinion has been rendered worthless by the 26 superb stories in Wings of Fire, an anthology about, you guessed it: Dragons.

The stories cover 53 years of dragon tales, from Gordon R. Dickson’s classic “St Dragon and the George,” F&SF, September 1957, to 2010s “The Miracle Aquilina” courtesy of Margo Lanagan, and the stories written in the intervening decades are just as good as these.

In fact, I’ve seldom encountered a theme anthology of such an original and unique bent as in story after story the tropes of dragon stories are examined and tossed aside.

Are there maidens menaced by slavering, flame-throwing reptiles? Yep. Dragons venturing through dimensions to relate with humans? Sure. Huge, telepathic, metal dragons bolted together like Russian Ilyushin IL2m3 WW II tank busting aircraft? You bet.

In fact, the single most impressive thing about this anthology is the originality of each story as selected by editors Strahan and Jablon who note in their introduction: “There’s no end, it seems, to what a dragon can be…we wanted to focus on modern fantasy, but wanted to be open to stories from any era and any genre.”

And in that quest they have succeeded admirably.

So, what we have here – and I’m saying this right up front – is a collection of 26 inventive, unique, surprising and well-written stories about every manner of dragon and their effect on the characters in each story.

Here are a few to pique interest and to get you to buy this book. Readers will not find a clunker in the bunch and therefore will not be disappointed. It is a volume to cherish.

Peter S. Beagle’s “Stable of Dragons” is an intriguing prose poem describing a man’s dragons he’s raising in a barn and what it all means. If this sounds simplistic, it’s not. The work is powerful and layered, with a rhythm and colorful imagery that sets the tone for the remainder of the book.

Things aren’t always what they seem and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Rule of Names” takes that concept through a multi-faceted world of magic, dragons, a war, and villagers who won’t speak their Truenames, all of which figures in a plot that has Mr. Underhill, the village's minor wizard - who, coincidentally, lives under the local hill - battling Blackbeard, the Sealord of Pendor for a treasure.

Le Guin packs her story with surprises and ultimately Mr. Underhill isn’t what he seems and the mere knowledge of this sends Birt the fisherman sailing frantically away, fleeing with the school teacher just before the story’s surprising and shocking finale’. And yes, a dragon figures prominently in the goings-on.

“The Ice Dragon” by George R.R. Martin is a dreamlike fable but grounded in a gritty war setting as the Dragonriders of the King battle the good dragon-riding rebels. And in this one the bad guys are bad, landing near villages to rape, pillage, torture and crucify the occupants.

Into this world Adara is born at the cost of her mother dying in birth which casts a pall over how she is, or isn’t, accepted by her family; she becomes an aloof loner and discovers she loves the cold lengthy winters, the ice lizards and, ultimately, the magical – and biggest of them all – Ice Dragon which by its mere presence causes the winters to grow longer and longer year by year.

Martin weaves a tapestry of intense emotion for Adara and the Ice Dragon which only she can ride and she does so to save her family and the village and to find again the love of her father.

There are surprises galore in “The Ice Dragon” and the tale hangs together perfectly…but what else would we expect from Martin other than excellence?

Holly Black’s “Sobek” is a detailed and wry look in the first person at a somewhat Goth teenager who finds herself victimized by her nutty mom who is convinced the warrior crocodile god Sobek The Destroyer, lives in the sewer beneath the dark, gloomy city in which they live.

Amaya is basically a good kid but rebellious as teenagers often are but her mom and some equally insane worshipers of Sobek toss Amaya into the sewer, ostensibly to contact Sobek but actually it’s a sacrificial move.

Sobek turns out to be real, which is freaky enough, but there is another teen tossed into the sewer, Hank, who’s made some headway during his time in the tunnels in understanding how Sobek The Destroyer operates.

Amaya and Hank partner up to survive Sobek and escape from their dank prison but she makes a startling discovery which changes both their lives and the fate of Sobek as well.

In many ways, “Sobek” reminded me of David J. Michael’s classic Death Tour (1980) where a group of thrill seekers finds Lovecraftian horrors beneath the streets of a metropolis.

However, Black goes less for gloom than teenage angst and the first-person Amaya’s a hoot, resilient, observant and acerbic and all in all a terrific character.

And, interestingly, Sobek The Destroyer turns out to be a real dragon, not a crocodile as Hank posited but that’s only the beginning of the ramifications of their finding the god in the sewers.

Black has created intrigue and great characters and a snapper ending in a very well crafted short story.

“King Dragon” from the always inventive Michael Swanwick is, to my way of thinking, a classic.

The gigantic, metal plated, bolted and welded, jet propelled dragons with cockpits that painfully tap into the half-elvin pilot’s minds to create a symbiotic melding with the creature are huge, omnipotent, living machines.

When one of them crashes into the town square of a small village and proceeds, with the help of local teenager Will, to rule the place, Swanwick digs into what makes the characters Will and King Dragon tick.

It follows that our hero Will is half elvin and thus able to communicate with the dragon as it tries to heal itself and completely rule the Medieval town in Avalon without Will’s assistance.

Sitting in the pilot’s seat inside the dragon’s cockpit is not a pleasant experience as the beast must invade the pilot’s mind in agonizing fashion, which causes Will to hate the thing but there’s little he can do about changing his situation. Or so he thinks.

And: Will’s best friend, his other pals, and the citizenry of the village come to hate him for helping the metal creature.

Will’s aunt is a crazed, blind, spell-casting old crone who is tough on him but does love him and her humanity, weird as it is, provides counterpoint to the cruel dragon that uses humans and is dismissive of human lives.

There’s more! An army recruiter, Sgt. Bombast, comes to town and meets a chilling fate; a revolution against King Dragon is fomented and Will, possessed by the mind of the dragon, is forced to solve the problem by exacting a horrible vengeance; and Will thinks he’s found a way to end King Dragon’s tyrannical rule but the cost could be his own life and perhaps the death of everyone in the village.

There is a lot going on in “King Dragon,” all of it interesting, most of it surprising and we’re guided through the labyrinth of detail by Swanwick’s steady authorial hand. A good story, this, a very good story.

Orson Scott Card’s “The Bully and the Best” caused me to chuckle, chortle and guffaw and then to furrow my brow upon encountering a pithy piece of philosophy perfectly fitted into his story and attuned to it and the reader.

“Bully/Beast” is yet another example of a wonderfully skilled writer taking a time-honored tradition – in this case the dragon premise – in totally unexpected and funny directions. I must confess that in Bork, the giant, slow-witted servant of the Count as a kitchen worker – conjured up images of Shrek but perhaps Shrek’s creators borrowed from Card’s 1979 story.

Bork is a dedicated, kindly sort who, because of his immense size, strength, kindly demeanor and station in life, is mocked by the Count’s knights; Bork wants only to marry Brunhilda, the Count’s statuesquely gorgeous blonde daughter.

However, the Count, his knights and the invading Duke all quickly acquire a new appreciation and fear of Bork when he fights for the Count and physically defeats the Duke and his invading hordes and brokers a peace, thus saving the Count’s fiefdom.

With Bork’s help, the Count becomes King; his daughter is taken by a dragon; Bork sets to rescue Brunhilda and engages in a physical and philosophical battle with the dragon which is both harrowing and hysterical; Bork wins the day and the princess and they live happily ever af…uh, actually, they don’t because things aren’t always what they seem.

But there’s more to this complex, ironic, sad, funny, detailed alternate world/Earth in which these colorful characters live and suffice it to say Card wraps up the events in moving and satisfying style.

Barry N. Malzberg, you like him or you don’t. I’ve found some of his work to be interesting, insightful and entertaining and some to be completely dense and impenetrable. His story, “Concerto Accademico” is a bit of both but in the end it is a satisfying entertainment, partially because of its completely unique setting: a concert hall invaded by a music loving dragon.

The Tarrytown Symphony is rehearsing the Third Movement of Ralph – pronounced “Rafe” per the composer’s insistence – Vaughan Williams’ Ninth Symphony when a gigantic fire-breathing dragon comes in because, evidently, it enjoys a hearty rendition of Williams’ Ninth.

Glassop, the third violinist, loves Gertrude, a first violinist, and his feelings for her, music, Williams, his fellow musicians, the situation and, of course, the dragon in their midst is the heart of the story.

There are no “whys” in this story. The dragon lumbers into the hall, three tons of monster, and settles down to watch. Why? It likes Williams? Who knows? Malzberg supplies no answers but instead digs deep into Glassop’s mind and the strangeness of the situation in long passages of introspection from our hero Glassop.

Unrequited love; the meaning of life and death; the ebb and flow of music; the resolution of a dull life reborn in a dragon’s fiery exhalation; historical background on Ralph Vaughan Williams’ life; and the impact of symphonic music on the listener are explored and liberally laced with Malzberg’s wit and irony.

The mad quality of “Concerto Accademico” insists that the reader just enjoy it for what it is and to take from it what they can. I suspect that it will mean different things to different people, which is a good thing, but one aspect Malzberg does accomplish is a superb rendition of what music means, how it affects us and the travail required to create and play it. All while interacting with a dragon, of course.

“Concerto Accademico” may not appeal to everyone but those to whom it does are in for a superb treat. This is also a story that should be read for the skill of Malzberg’s performance as a writer which is exceptional here.

By now, you’ve undoubtedly discerned that although each story contains a dragon of some sort, not every story is about dragons; but every story is at least informed by the presence of dragons and that, dear reader, is what this anthology is all about.

A good example of a dragon being a vital part of the story but not the part of greatest import is “The Miracle Aquilina” by Margo Lanagan, which is the most recently created story in the book, and one of the best.

The concept is straightforward: a shepherdess in what seems to be a medieval land is to be boiled as a heretic for having “gone over to the saint’s ways” and for refusing the King’s request of marriage.

A captain in the royal guard drags his teenage daughter to the torture session to show her what happens to women who refuse to obey the wishes of men, particularly the King. Seeing the shepherdess tortured, humiliated and executed will be good for the girl, set her on the right obsequious path regarding men, teach her to conform and to assume her womanly duties without complaint.

In a cavernous dungeon beneath the castle the King and his minions, courtiers, and other palace sycophants gather to enjoy the festivities. They’re in for a surprise.

The shepherdess is whipped, seems to enjoy it and is instantly healed; she is boiled and emerges steaming but happy and unblistered; she refuses the King’s proposals to be his wife and this rebuff brings on the “dragon,” a construction of knives and blades and cloth and reeds in the shape of a creature which is given life by black magic, becoming an actual dragon which devours the shepherdess as directed by the King, who controls the ersatz monster with his mind.

The huge conjured beast contorts, writhes, rips people to shreds, spits fireballs and dies, splitting open and the shepherdess emerges unscathed.

Then, with the most horrific act of all, the teen’s captain dad takes matters into his own hands and changes everyone’s lives forever by his action.

Lanagan brilliantly evokes a strange and murderous time where magic, black and white, is accepted and the rights of women and others are trampled on as a matter of course. “The Miracle Aquilina” is a marvelous example of a dragon as part of a larger story.

Gordon R. Dickson’s “St. Dragon and the George” is a classic fantasy and when I read it in F&SF back in 1957 I recall thinking, “This is something special!”

Rereading the comic fantasy reinforces my opinion of the Dickson-limned adventures of college professor Jim Eckert when his mind is spell-cast through time and space into the body and brain of a dragon named Gorbash in a magical land. His trip was the result of wanting to pursue his girlfriend who’d already been sent to the different world by accident.

He teams up with cranky magician Corolinus; Nevile-Smythe, knight; the old, jaded, slightly wacky dragon Smrgol, and Secoh, a small, very nervous dragon to rescue Eckert’s girlfriend Angie, held in a cage by the evil dragon Anark.

The quartet risks everything in their fight against Anark, dark forces, and a huge, hideous ogre to rescue Angie. They succeed and Corolinus sends Jim and Angie back through time and space to Riveroak College where a few more surprises await.

The keys to this one are Dickson’s revealing of character via snappy and funny dialogue between the protagonists; this along with Eckert’s confusion and reactions to being a dragon infuses the story with an underlying element of enjoyable humor which makes the horrors more nerve wracking by contrast.

Dickson could turn a phrase with the best of them and “St. Dragon and the George” has plenty of them.

“Berlin” by Charles de Lint is a hard look at a gritty, gruesome and spooky Bordertown, an area where, 50 years in the future, Elfland has returned and created this borderland where magic and reality overlap between Elfland and our world.

Bordertown is a rough, tough, bleak place where a young woman, Berlin, along with her friend Stick, lives and works helping drug addicts.

An evil band of drug pushers kills a man who’s running rehab houses and pins the crime on Berlin, which was not a good idea, considering she is a dragon guardian spirit with amazing physical powers and she’s bent on revenge.

Stick is likewise a guardian spirit and the two of them venture deep into the bowls of Bordertown to find the murderer, and who is behind the influx of drugs that will future depress the already dystopian Bordertown.

The plot is straightforward but it is de Lint’s descriptive skill in describing this mad world with descriptors and slang reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Initially, many a “Wha…?” and “Eh?” issued from yrs. trly but once rolling through de Lint’s world the phrases and names and vernacular fell into place and off I went on this thrilling adventure fraught with underlying meaning.

Many of the stories in Wings of Fire have levels of meaning that are intriguing and not intrusive and, in fact, contribute positively to the tales and “Berlin” is no exception.

“Berlin” ended too soon to suit me…I wanted to learn more about her and Stick and their world.

Reviewing all 26 stories would use all of Tangent Online’s bandwidth, but these 11 stories are, I feel, representative of the entire collection: sharp, smart, clever, unique and outside the usual “dragon story” envelope.

Anyone who likes dragons – and even those who don’t – could not find a better collection of dragon stories anywhere. Period.

Buy Wings of Fire. Read it. You won’t be disappointed.

Night Shade Books, June 2010