Sunday, May 23, 2004

Review: "The Dragon Quintet"

When you mention fantasy, one of the first images that pops into people's minds is probably the dragon. There's no other single element that better represents the genre. Unfortunately, there's also no element that has become quite as cliché.

For that reason, in recent years, the population of dragons has been steadily declining in the various worlds of fantasy. These days, if there's mention of a dragon, it's often a whispered legend of great creatures that died out long ago. That's bad news for us fans of the dragon.

But there's good news, too. "The Dragon Quintet," ($24.95, Tor) brings together five of the biggest names in fantasy to weave tales of the great magical beasts. Those tapped to bring dragons back to the worlds of fantasy include Orson Scott Card, Mercedes Lackey, Tanith Lee, Elizabeth Moon and Michael Swanwick. Their dragons couldn't be more different, either.

Card is undeniably a master of science fiction, having delivered, in my opinion, one of the greatest stories of the genre, "Ender's Game." But he's also an accomplished fantasist too, as he illustrates in the opening story, "In the Dragon's House." It tells the tale of a young man who has come to live in a very strange house with his great aunt and uncle. Curious about the attic room where no one is allowed to go, he sneaks in to discover that there's another, secret inhabitant of the house. The dragon seems benevolent, but he has his own agenda.

Moon is probably best known for writing military science fiction, about the farthest you can get from dragons in the speculative genres. But she's also no stranger to fantasy. Her dragon in "Judgment" is more along the lines of what has become the norm in fantasy, a nearly all-powerful and all-wise being that has the ability to appear in human form. The story begins when a young man and his future father-in-law find some strange rocks near their village. The rocks turn out to be dragon eggs, each containing thousands of young dragons and a whole lot of trouble.

A master of dark and macabre stories, Lee has regularly used dragons in her stories. In "Love in the Time of Dragons," a knight sets out with a village girl in tow to slay the dragon in the nearby mountains. The surprise is all his, though.

Lackey's Valdemar is one of the most familiar worlds in fantasy, and her story "Joust" was the basis for her 2003 novel of the same name. Lackey's dragons are more companion animals than the typical fantasy dragon. They're highly intelligent, but don't have the magical properties that other writers ascribe to them. In "Joust," a young serf is taken on by a dragon rider to tend his beast, but sees freedom within his grasp when he steals an egg from the clutch of a dragon that has been accidentally bred.

In his classic "The Iron Dragon's Daughter," Swanwick took the conventions of fantasy and turned them on their heads. He does it again in this collection with "King Dragon." If you've read the earlier work of Swanwick, it's no surprise that his dragons are malicious metal monsters, made of both magic and technology. In this story, an injured dragon crawls into a local village after a battle and takes over, setting himself up as king.

These five excellent tales from five of the top writers in the genre show just how diverse these stories and the dragons that populate them can be. They prove that there are still good dragon stories out there.

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