Monday, November 02, 2009

Review: The Dragon Quintet -- ed Marvin Kaye

Mmmm … a collection of novellas featuring dragons? Sign me up. I'm really appreciating the novella as a form these days: the extra space to explore without the time commitment of a full novel. I enjoyed the introduction and exploration into the origins of the word - entertaining but thoughtful. The stories are described briefly but not "pumped up" (something which tends to be a major turn-off for me).

First up is "In The Dragon's House" by Orson Scott Card, the story of an unusual dwelling with a deep and fiery secret, and the whimsical, theatrical family that lives there. This story proves that you can get away with an infodump opening if it's entertaining enough, though I did feel the backstory went on a bit long. Furthermore, the pace of the whole novella was slow. However, the people feel real and intriguing, and there are vivid descriptions of the house's warm place and the waking dreams Michael has there. Overall, an enjoyable read.

A slow start is also a feature of Elizabeth Moon's "Judgment," the story of what transpires when Ker and his soon-to-be father-in-law discover unusual rocks along the pathway. Once this story hits a certain point, however, the emotions and the stakes deepen. There is a fascinating world just under the surface of Moon's story, explored - played with - but not exhausted. Cultural aspects play a key role in the progression of the tale, which I particularly appreciated. I did find the conclusion a little disconnected from the rest, and it also took on some "the moral of the story" aspects that were mildly annoying … but overall, it continued to hold the attention right through.

I do have a quibble about the combination of stories here: both the first two stories involve dragon-inside-person plotlines, though with different contexts. Seems like they shouldn't be one after the other to me.

I had mixed feelings about Tanith Lee's "Love In A Time Of Dragons," a sometimes poetic, sometimes cruel story of a woman, a dragon, a champion and the love that develops from that familiar triangle. There are some beautiful, absorbing images throughout the story, and I was especially fond of the final chapter when everything comes together. In between, however, I questioned the main theme of the story. What I saw was not love, but physical obsession, something more primal and less spiritual. In addition, the point of view was such that, although at times I saw the main character's world with painful clarity, I was often left puzzled as to her inner workings - to the result that I felt one twist of the story was not fairly foreshadowed, and she sometimes came off as somewhat sociopathic or at least alien. I also found the raunchiness a bit of a turn-off.

I loved "Joust" from Mercedes Lackey, the story of Vetch, a young serf who gets the opportunity to escape the drudgery of his life … for the drudgery of caring for dragons. If the later events of the story are somewhat telegraphed by the unusual nature of Kashet, that is easily forgiveable for a tale that is tense, absorbing and emotional. The setting has nice details as well, a sense of history buried in this small land. This story is well constructed, with details appropriately placed and everything well-paced. Worth the read, though it ends with a beginning …

The final story, Michael Swanwick's "King Dragon," is an intriguing blend of fairy and technology, with a new approach to dragons as aerial weapons. Its narrator, Will, has the dubious honor of being chosen as the lieutenant of this dragon. Swanwick offers an exceptional setting, richly illustrated throughout the story and always promising more. I did find the ambiguity of the dragon somewhat unbalanced; it would have been more effective if it was more menacing earlier on. Sometimes, there's a slight distance from the characters that makes it hard to assess them - but this was definitely an absorbing read.

As a whole, I would say that four of the stories here - Lee's being the possible exception - were worth the read. They provide a solid story structure and make use of their length to explore the setting or characters in a way that is generally quite satisfying. The range of dragons here is somewhat biased towards mere animal - or are they? - but also encompasses the alien and the more than human. Recommended.

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