July 02, 2020
(++++) SPLENDORS DRACONIC
The Book of Dragons. Edited by Jonathan Strahan. Illustrated by Rovina Cai. Harper Voyager. $35.
You may think there are two schools of thought about dragons: the Occidental, in which they evilly lay waste to vast areas, breathe fire, and are ripe for destruction by a lengthy series of St. George epigones; and the Oriental, in which they are earthbound or water-bound, beneficent or at least neutral where humans are concerned, and are generally harbingers of good luck. The Book of Dragons, however, shows that there are 29 ways of looking at a dragon, one for each contribution to Jonathan Strahan’s anthology. There may be even more, but even an almost-600-page book has to end sometime.
Readers who are fond of dragon lore will wish this volume went on even longer than it does, because the variegated views of dragons espoused and explored herein make for fascinating reading from just about every angle that fantasy takes today. Here is a mundane real-world autobiographical tale that shades at last into wonder: Pox by Ellen Klages. Here is a traditional dragon-demands-maiden-sacrifice story, turned personal and enigmatic: The Nine Curves River by R.F. Kuang. Here is outlandish humor, in which dragons have to figure out, among other things, lawsuits: Hikayat Sri Bujang, or, The Tale of the Naga Sage by Zen Cho. Here is a tale so packed with detailed world-building that it feels like a novel compressed into 20 pages, or a 20-page story around which a novel can (and probably should) be built: Matriculation by Elle Katharine White. Here are two poems of enigmatic thoughtfulness: What Heroism Tells Us and A Nice Cuppa by Jane Yolen.
Dragon lore is multifaceted, so in some ways it is no surprise to find The Book of Dragons so packed with so many variations on so fruitful a theme. But the sheer extent of those variations is a surprise, and a pleasant one. Dragons mean so much in this book. They mean that it is better to be a low-paid lighthouse keeper with dragons than a well-paid lawyer without them: The Dragons by Theodora Goss. They mean that a particularly lucky dragon-slayer is forced by a particularly unpleasant prince to capture a dragon alive so the prince can overcome it: Habitat by K.J. Parker. They mean that an otherworldly tug-of-war is ongoing over dragon-shaped human souls, or rather external manifestations of human emotions in the shape of dragons: Lucky’s Dragon by Kelly Barnhill.
And there is much more here, from some of today’s best-known and most-accomplished fantasists – Michael Swanwick, Garth Nix, Patricia A. McKillip – and from numerous up-and-coming fantasy authors whose imaginative treatment of the topic is equally enthralling. It turns out that dragons continue to inspire creativity of all sorts, often with echoes of the traditional Occidental and Oriental views of them but equally often with echoes of a different kind: Where the River Turns to Concrete by Brooke Bolander, for example, imagines a river spirit ousted by human encroachment in essentially the same way that this happens in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, but with much more brutal consequences.
There are many stories here in which dragons are central, as is only to be expected. But there are also some intriguing cases in which they are almost incidental: Peter S. Beagle’s Except on Saturdays, which is more of a musing upon the persistence of myth and the ways in which some people, a few, are open to it even in the modern world; and Sarah Gailey’s We Don’t Talk about the Dragon, a tale of an abusive family, more draconian than draconic, that is as monstrous in its small, casual and constant cruelties as any imagined winged beast.
Most of the stories do their own word painting, their own scene creation, rendering the nicely sculpted Rovina Cai drawings decorative enough, but only modestly connected to the narratives or illustrative of them.
Unsurprisingly, the book begins and ends with Tolkien, specifically with quotations from The Hobbit about Smaug. The opening one is the dragon’s self-description of might and potency; the closing one, Tolkien’s poetically nuanced words, “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.” In truth, Smaug is dispatched in The Hobbit with rather more alacrity and ease than would be expected, given the buildup to his appearance and his own boastful words. But The Hobbit, unlike The Lord of the Rings, was intended for younger readers, and at least in Tolkien’s time, dwelling overmuch on the dragon’s depredations simply would not do. The authors in The Book of Dragons, on the other hand, are writing for adults, and their themes are frequently quite dark and very adult indeed. They are also quite a bit further removed from Tolkien than Strahan’s choice of opening and closing quotations might lead one to expect. Today’s best fantasists have absorbed the lessons of Tolkien, yes, but have by and large moved beyond them where dragons are concerned, finding new ways to use the dragon legends – of whatever provenance. There is little in The Book of Dragons that directly recalls Smaug, but much to indicate that Smaug and other draconic characters of earlier times continue to enthrall and captivate the newer generations of fantasy authors.