Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Here be dragons!

After reading The Hobbit for 6+7 Book Club and rediscovering how much I enjoyed the conversations between Bilbo Baggins and Smaug the dragon, I decided to check out some more recent offerings in dragon mode, specifically in the YA section, to see if they live up to the high expectations of a dragon aficionado.

I have always liked dragon stories, from Ruth Stiles Gannett (My Father’s Dragon) to Bruce Coville (Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher), Cornelia Funke (Dragon Rider) and Patricia Wrede (the Enchanted Forest Chronicles), from Ursula K. LeGuin (the Earthsea books) to Anne McCaffrey (her Dragonriders of Pern series), as well as Robin McKinley, Christopher Paolini—they go on and on. Here is a good list of dragons in literature from Wikipedia, and this is by no means comprehensive! And of course there are all the books in which dragons only play a tangential part (like the Harry Potter books and George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series)! Here are some more...

The first book I read was actually written in 2007, but I missed reading it then, and since a sequel came out just this month, I thought I should read the first before trying the second, so I took home Dragon’s Keep, by Janet Lee Carey. This book is set some 600 years after the time of Merlin, and the characters are descendants of a disgraced and banished younger sister of King Arthur. They have been waiting on their remote island for the fulfillment of Merlin’s prophecy that the 21st daughter of their line would return to England to marry the current heir to the throne and restore the family to glory (or at least that's how they interpreted the prophecy!). There’s just one problem with this: The princess, Rosalind, who is to fulfill this destiny, was born with a dragon claw as the ring finger of her left hand. No one but her mother is privy to this disgrace, and her mother has set a fashion that royal ladies are gloved at all times to hide Rosalind’s secret.

This book started slowly, and I didn’t care for the language or style of narration—not that it was badly written, it just didn’t flow for me. Also, I felt the author spent way too much time on the weeping, wailing, and pursuit of cures by the queen and the princess regarding her “cursed” finger. Too much repetitive surface stuff, not enough content. I almost put it down unfinished—but then the dragon who lives on nearby Dragon’s Keep comes and carries Rosalind off, and the story takes a turn for the entertaining. The interaction with the dragons made all the difference, and I ended up enjoying this story more than I expected to from the first half. The sequel is Dragonswood, set a generation after this book but still on Wilde Island. (Haven't read that one.) My rating for Dragon's Keep: 3.

The thing about dragon literature that is most fascinating is how the author conceives of them—as dumb beasts, as telepathic partners, as a wily race of tricksters, as a separate but equal civilization—and what details this provokes in the authors’ treatment. Do the dragons speak, do they have their own language, culture, and traditions? and how do they interact with and view humans? Are they oblivious, indifferent, antagonistic, fascinated, assimilationist…the options go on and on, and this is the heart of good science fiction—the What if? question pursued.

The next book I read—Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman, written in 2012—takes a completely different approach from Carey’s. In the kingdom of Goredd, humans and dragons have maintained an uneasily negotiated peace for four generations. The saar (dragons) are able to take human shape, and have become a presence at the Goreddi court as ambassadors, as well as lending their emotionless but highly intelligent and precise talents as teachers at human universities. (They reminded me of Spock!) As the book opens, a member of the Goreddi royal family has been murdered in a fashion that suggests draconian involvement. Seraphina Dombegh, assistant music master to the court and pupil of the dragon Orma, is, because of her familiarity with dragon culture, drawn into the investigation by the captain of the Queen’s Guard, Prince Lucian Kiggs. But amidst the suspicion and distrust between humans and dragons revived by this murder, Seraphina also has a personal secret that makes her involvement perilous for her and for those she loves.

 This elegantly written book was instantly and completely involving. After reading the entire story (in one day) and coming up for air, I had a lot of questions about the dragons’ background and how they came to take human form when so many of them so despised humanity; but while I was in the moment, all I could do was admire the emotional and philosophical complexity of the society that Hartman created and get completely caught up in Seraphina’s story. The world-building was consistent, perfectly plausible, and more than a little fascinating. I also appreciate the fact that although she plans a sequel, Hartman wrote this book as if it was a stand-alone, and the conclusion is satisfying. This one is definitely a book to top the list of “Dragons in literature.” My rating: 5 / 5.

In the course of all this reading about dragons, I also remembered Tolkien’s other, little-known fable, Farmer Giles of Ham. Farmer Giles is fat, red-faced and slow, and, like Bilbo, seems to encounter his adventures almost by accident. A rather deaf and short-sighted giant wanders onto his land, and Farmer Giles manages to get rid of him by shooting at him (and missing) with a blunderbuss. This act makes his village view him as a hero, and results in the king of the land giving him a fancy sword famous for dragon-slaying. Meanwhile, the giant returns home to tell his friends that there are no knights left to withstand them, so a dragon decides to chance his luck in the neighborhood, whereupon everyone expects poor Farmer Giles to deal with him, with rather hilarious results. If you liked The Hobbit, don’t forget Farmer Giles!

1 comment:

  1. May I suggest Michael Swanwick's The Dragons of Babel for those who would find depictions of a highly complex, steam-punk'ed, magical Faerie society and intriguing, part-mechanical, wardragons just their thing. This fantastic book has it all for the lover of fantasy and technology.