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Here Be Dragons

For creatures of myth, dragons certainly get around.

As long as we've been writing the history of ourselves, we've been writing about dragons.  They're sculpted on Babylon's Ishtar Gate and described on Agamemnon's armor in the Iliad.  They adorn a temple in Teotihuacan and are depicted in seashells beside a Chinese grave over six thousand years old.  There are dragon legends from every continent except Antarctica (unless you count Dragon Glacier).  You've probably heard some of their names before: Lotan. Tiamat. Fei Lian. Ladon. Yamata-no-Orochi. Quetzalcoatl. Y Ddraig Goch. Fafnir. 

Dragons appear in our world's very earliest stories as creators and destroyers, gods and monsters, guardians and teachers, givers of wisdom and symbols of chaos.  They hoard the wealth of the earth and the oceans.  They oppose or aid (and sometimes adorn) our greatest gods and heroes.  They prowl the blank edges of our maps, embodying the wonders and terrors we've not yet explored: HERE BE DRAGONS.

Today, our scaly friends continute to be icons of fantasy, from the great and terrible Smaug to Daenerys Targaryen and her brood.  But the dragon has come a long way from its stereotypical role as a scaly embodiment of evil and chaos, as a celestial being of elemental power and wisdom, or even as a textbook monster with breath weapon, fear radius, and a ridiculous number of hit dice (and yes, I know that description probably dates me). 

It would be easy to list the couple hundred titles in our collection that contain those familiar dragons of legend (if you want those, just search under the subject "Dragons--Fiction" in the catalog), but I'd rather tell you about the unusual titles, the ones where the dragons (or our interactions with them) don't quite run to type.  So for this month, in chronological order, I bring you ten tales of dragons you might not have been expecting.

 

1983: Moreta's Ride by Anne McCaffrey (SF McCaffrey) ISBN 9780739451922

  • What it's about: Every few hundred years, Pern's valiant dragons and their telepathically-bonded dragonriders must take to the air to burn the mindless, hungry lifeform called Thread from their skies, before it can devour all organic life on the ground.  But now, a mysterious epidemic is sweeping Pern, and dragonriders are no more immune than the rest of Pern's settlers.  Even if a cure can be found, will there be time enough to restore the dragonriders before Thread falls again?
  • How it's different: Okay, you probably were expecting a Pern title, but I couldn't very well talk about "different" dragons without mentioning the original "different" dragons.  Anne McCaffrey's Pern is SF in Fantasy clothing; Pern was settled by colonists from Earth, but they have long since forgotten their space-faring origins and have reverted to an agrarian, pre-industrial society.  Pern's "dragons" were genetically modified by the first settlers from an indigenous flying lizard with the ability to chew phosphine-bearing rock, burp flame, and teleport out of the way of Thread (whoever said GMOs were bad?). 
  • What I love about it: Set in the past of the main series, Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern is one of the few standalones in McCaffrey's long-running Dragonriders of Pern, and a good way for newcomers to try the series on for size.  For Pern fans, the book contains a number of pivotal backstory reveals.  Moreta and her dragon Orlith are brave, daring, and resourceful in the face of dangers even deadlier than Thread.  The event that became a legend on Pern makes for a tremendously gripping read right here at home.  (Nerilka's Story, also contained in this omnibus edition, gives an alternate character's perspective of the same event.)

 

1989: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett (Pbk-Fantasy Pratchett) ISBN 9780061020643

  • What it's about: A book on summoning dragons goes missing from the Unseen University library.  A number of small charcoal biscuits (formerly citizens) start turning up on the city streets.  And soon, Ankh-Morpork finds its (mostly-) benevolent dictator, the Patrician, has been replaced with something much worse... a flying, scaly, fire-breathing King.
  • How it's different: It's Discworld, which means that while nothing will be quite as you expect (including the dragons), it will always be good for a laugh. There are two species of dragons in this book: the believed-extinct Draco nobilis, or noble dragon (huge, breathes fire, flies, hoards gold, eats virgins, generally makes a pest of itself) and Draco vulgaris, the swamp dragon (dog-sized, corrosive drool, bad flier, tends to explode, bred as a pet or show animal by pedigreed enthusiasts, generally makes a pest of itself).
  • What I love about it: I've been pretty up-front about my adoration for Sir Terry's work.  As the first of the "City Watch" books, this title is a great entrance point for newcomers to the Discworld series.  The Ankh-Morpork Watch harbors-- er, employs some of my favorite characters, including Sam Vimes and Carrot Ironfoundersson, both of whom are introduced to the series in this title.  (And Lady Sybil the dragon-breeder is a hoot.)

 

1990: Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede (Fantasy Wrede) ISBN 9780590457224

  • What it's about: From the jacket copy: "Cimorene is everything a princess is not supposed to be: headstrong, tomboyish, smart... and bored. So bored that she runs away to live with a dragon... and finds the family and excitement she's been looking for."
  • How it's different: Wrede takes all the evil-dragon, knight-in-shining-armor, damsel-in-distress fantasy tropes (as well as a few popular fairy tales) and messes with them.  HARD.  A princess chooses to be a dragon's housekeeper rather than marry a prince, a knight rescues a dragon, and a witch helps to save the day.  Also, Wrede's dragons are allergic to wizards (and a sneezing dragon is a dangerous thing).
  • What I love about it: It's silly and light-hearted, full of non-magical frogs who learned to talk from hanging out with enchanted princes, and witches who are willing to lend a dragon their favorite crepe pan.  Cimorene is a smart, gutsy princess who finds that all those boring princess lessons come in quite handy after all (especially at dragon dinner parties).  Kazul is both everything and nothing like what you'd expect a dragon to be.  And don't worry, evil still gets a very satisfying tromping-on in the end.

 

2003: Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton (Fantasy Walton) ISBN 9780765302649

  • What it's about: From the jacket copy: "Here is a tale of a family dealing with the death of their father, a son who goes to court for his inheritance, a son who agonizes over his father’s deathbed confession, a daughter who falls in love, a daughter who becomes involved in the abolition movement, and a daughter sacrificing herself for her husband." Sounds like a nice, quiet period piece, doesn't it? Here's the catch: all of them are dragons, "red in tooth and claw."
  • How it's different: Walton merges scaly, hungry, fire-breathing dragons of legend into an aristocratic society as exqusitely mannered and rigid as that of the Victorians.  (Although the Victorians didn't literally eat the weak.)
  • What I love about it: I happened to read this around the same time I was on a Jane Austen kick (yes, I know Jane is earlier; Regency society was pretty rigid, too).  It made me think very differently about the passions and appetites that underpinned (and likely resulted in) the strict rules of etiquette in Tonnish Society.

 

2006: Temeraire: In the Service of the King by Naomi Novik (Fantasy Novik) ISBN 9780739468715

  • What it's about:  An alternate history set during the Napoleonic Wars, with aerial warfare added in the form of dragons.  A captured French ship reveals what will become a life-changing prize for British Navy captain Will Laurence: a dragon egg on the verge of hatching.  The rare Chinese dragon that emerges, whom he names Temeraire, unexpectedly chooses Laurence as his lifetime bondmate, forcing the captain to abandon his repectable naval career for the disreputable, understaffed Aerial Corps. (This omnibus edition contains the first three titles in the Temeraire series: His Majesty's Dragon, The Throne of Jade, and Black Powder War.)
  • How it's different: Patrick O'Brien, eat your heart out.  Novik's dragons are frigates of the sky, with all the actual personality, heart, and bravery that naval men typically ascribe to their ships.  Each nation's breed has different characteristics that make them militarily valuable; Temeraire is something of a dark horse, as his breed is so little known outside of his origin country.
  • What I love about it: What's not to love? These books have all the drama, intrigue, and excitement of Napoleonic-era sea battles, plus DRAGONS.  Novik creates a completely believable 18th century setting, and her aerial combat scenes feel like a natural extension of period naval tactics.  Bold, curious, fiercely loyal Temeraire is a delight to read.  Laurence is all the more intriguing for being mature, seasoned, and reserved, where many authors might have paired an equally callow and brash human with the hatchling.  These two have a great deal to learn from each other.

 

2008: Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett (Fantasy Jones) ISBN 9780553806960

  • What it's about: The elite Dragon Corps, rebellious and cocky airmen who fly metal dragons fueled by magic, have been Volstov's key weapon against the enemy Ke-Han.  The battle seemed all but won, but the tide may be turning against them now.  Scandals and accusations of dissolute behavior plague the Corps, mages are falling ill, and odd glitches in the dragons' operation pop up at inopportune times.  Coincidence, sloppy maintenance, or enemy action?  The Dragon Corps will have to work together to find the answers... if they can keep from killing each other before the enemy does.
  • How it's different: The dragons in this book are huge, gleaming, semi-sentient robots made of metal and magic.  The airmen who crew them feel like a cross between a top gun fighter pilot squadron and a biker gang-- heavy on the attitude and testosterone, but with the skills to back it up.
  • What I love about it: To be honest, I didn't at first.  Some of the characters (Rook especially, no surprise there) really left me cold.  But I really liked the technomagical fighter-dragon concept, so I kept reading-- and in the end, I was glad I did.  The intrigue gets twistier as you go along, and the characters grew on me (even Rook).  They live hard, they party hard, but beyond the bluster and the hazing are a bunch of heroes who will go to the mat for someone they feel is worthy.  They're absolutely loyal to their friends and they'd give their lives and their dragons for the people they love.  (And the dragons are totally kick-(ahem).)

 

2012: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (YA Hartman) ISBN 9780375866562

  • What it's about: For nearly forty years, humans and dragonkind have enjoyed a fruitful-- through uneasy-- peace.  But on the eve of the treaty's anniversary, Goredd's Crown Prince is found murdered in suspiciously draconian fashion.  Seraphina, a talented musician new to the court, is drawn into the investigation with Prince Lucian Kiggs, captain of the Queen's Guard.  But Seraphina has secrets of her own which, if revealed, could endanger her life as much as the sinister plot that threatens to unravel Goredd's fragile peace.
  • How it's different: Hartman's dragons are mathematical, logical, and ruthlessly civilized, with hints of technology far in advance of their feudal human counterparts.  Human emotions are both a puzzlement and a fascination to them.  Folded into human shape, these dragons remind me of nothing so much as fantasy's answer to Vulcans. Oh... and I hear they can cross-breed with humans (though of course, that would be an abomination).
  • What I love about it: Hartman's world-building is fantastic, and the draconic society she describes is fascinating (as is the world inside Seraphina's head).  You get the sense in this book of the kind of intense cross-cultural sharing that helped kick off the Renaissance in our world.  And, unlike many speculative fiction writers, Hartman doesn't shy away from incorporating religion into her world-- in fact, she makes it an essential element of the plot.  Seraphina herself is wonderfully three-dimensional and conflicted as she works to find her footing between two very different worlds, both of which would likely destroy her if they knew her true nature.  (And have no fear of sophomore slump-- the second book, Shadow Scale, is just as absorbing as the first.)

 

2013: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan, illus. by Todd Lockwood (Fantasy Brennan) ISBN 9780765331960

  • What it's about: In what is more or less an alternate 19th century England, Isabella, Lady Trent is a born naturalist in a society where scientific pursuits are forbidden to women, particularly those of gentle birth.  Her dedication to the study of flying creatures-- particularly dragons-- leads her to marry a man with similar passions.  She persuades him to let her accompany him on the expedition of her dreams: to study the wild dragons of Vystrana.  These are her memoirs.
  • How it's different: Brennan makes dragons alive and real-- realistically real-- in a way no other author has, by placing them in a scientific context.  Her dragons are no more mythic than wolves, eagles, tigers, or any other endangered apex predator, but no less awe-inspiring for that.
  • What I love about it: Pardon, I think my history obsession is showing.  I had a hard time remembering that this book wasn't written by a real person. (Er... Lady Trent, that is, not Marie Brennan. Ms. Brennan is real.  I think.)  Lady Trent's period voice is engaging and spot-on, and I was ready to place her in the constellation of (real-life) pioneering women I admire within the first fifty pages.  She writes passionately about her work and with heart-breaking honesty about her self-doubt and youthful uncertainty as she tries to feel her way between her scientific nature and the expectations of her class and sex.  If you've ever dreamed of sailing aboard HMS Beagle with Darwin or paddling down the Congo with Mary Kingsley, this is the book for you.

 

2014: The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston (YA Johnston) ISBN 9781467710664

  • What it's about: From the jacket copy: "Listen! For I sing of Owen Thorskard: valiant of heart, hopeless at algebra, last in a long line of legendary dragon slayers. Though he had few years and was not built for football, he stood between the town of Trondheim and creatures that threatened its survival.  There have always been dragons. As far back as history is told, men and women have fought them, loyally defending their villages. Dragon slaying was a proud tradition.  But dragons and humans have one thing in common: an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. From the moment Henry Ford hired his first dragon slayer, no small town was safe. Dragon slayers flocked to cities, leaving more remote areas unprotected.  Such was Trondheim's fate until Owen Thorskard arrived. At sixteen, with dragons advancing and his grades plummeting, Owen faced impossible odds—armed only with a sword, his legacy, and the classmate who agreed to be his bard.  Listen! I am Siobhan McQuaid. I alone know the story of Owen, the story that changes everything. Listen!"
  • How it's different: Set in an alternate modern-day Canada, the dragon-slayers are largely corporate- and government-sponsored (meaning the big cities get big protection and small towns are pretty much on their own), and they pass down their knowledge in families.  The dragons (who have always been with us) didn't become a serious threat until humanity began its love affair with fossil fuels, which dragons find delicious.  (Carbon emissions of any kind draw them like flies to a garbage truck.  Carbon is empty calories for them, but hey, most cars come with nice meaty snacks inside.)
  • What I love about it: Johnston is wickedly thorough in her draconic revision of world history. The Sahara? Result of a botched dragonslaying after Rome torched Carthage.  The (former) Detroit Red Wings, un-home team of the NHL?  Symbol of an entire state lost to Ford's greed and hubris: “the wheel, for the car that had brought Michigan up, and the wing, for the dragons that had brought it down."  Defensive driving courses include lessons in dragon identification and evasion; fire safety means keeping an eye out for wings on the horizon when you light a campfire.  Owen and his family are the professional heroes, but Siobhan, his bard-in-training, is the real star of the piece (and, amazingly for YA, not Owen's love interest).  I love the way she's always thinking in terms of music, and what instrument different personalities "sound" like.  The plot ticks along fast and leaves you hungry for the sequel.

 

2014: A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn (YA Hahn) ISBN 9780544109353

  • What it's about: From the jacket copy: "As the only heir to the throne, Marni should have been surrounded by wealth and privilege, not living in exile—but now the time has come when she must choose between claiming her birthright as princess of a realm whose king wants her dead, and life with the father she has never known: a wild dragon who is sending his magical woods to capture her."
  • How it's different: The dragon regularly steals girls away from their normal lives-- but only those who wish to be taken.  The dragon is wildness, magic, freedom... but there's a cost to his gift. There's always a cost.
  • What I love about it: Hahn's prose is gorgeous, and Marni is an exceptionally clear-eyed (and stubborn) protagonist.  She's well aware of her station in life (or rather, her lack of one), and the sacrifices that others have made on her behalf.  She knows her mind and her worth, both to herself and to others... what she doesn't know is where she rightly belongs.  She's born to two different worlds, yet her dual nature keeps her from fitting easily into either one.  While this might sound suspiciously llike Seraphina above, remember that Marni's nature is no secret to those around her-- everyone knows what she is and how she was born, and she has to live with that.  This is a beautiful, atmospheric, and sometimes poignant tale about vengeance and love, dreams and growing up.

 

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