The Book of Dragons – more. More. MORE DRAGONS

52583994._sx0_sy0_Its the start of October, my favorite month, and it seems like the perfect time to curl up with a giant book of short stories. Today we will be talking about The Book of Dragons, by a whole hell of a lot of authors and edited by Jonathan Strahan. Jonathan Strahan has been on my radar for a while. He continuously puts out anthologies that pique my curiosity, but not quite enough to divert my reading schedule for a massive pile of short stories. Well, the stars have finally aligned. This is a collection edited by Strahan, it has a serious A-list of authors, and it’s about DRAGONS. Who doesn’t love dragons? Dragons are experiencing a real renaissance right now, so I decided to get into the spirit and dig into this big book of dragons in search of treasure. However, as usual with anthologies, the results were mixed.

To begin, I think Strahan did a fantastic job organizing and gathering up these stories. This is a truly eclectic group of works, and I really enjoyed their diverse nature. There are traditional dragon/sword-and-sorcery stories, tales about metaphorical dragons, poems, inventive takes on what a dragon is, and more. I think holistically, The Book of Dragons is a great package deal that would satisfy any dragon fan looking for more fresh content to dig their greedy claws into. The writers and their dragons are also from nice diverse backgrounds so you really get a nice mix of perspectives on the topic.

On the other hand, there weren’t a lot of stories that stood out as being particularly exemplary to me. What was particularly interesting is that my past experiences with the various authors’ writing had little to no bearing on whether I liked their shorts. Scott Lynch has written some of my favorite books, yet I found his story slow and dull. I feel like I am the only person I know that didn’t like R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War, but her short story was probably my favorite in the entire series. It felt like a number of authors took this as an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and really take flight to explore new territory with their writing. While I definitely think that is a great thing to do, the resulting product can be a little uneven.

Below is a list of my top five pieces (in no order) from the collection and a little about them. If these sound appealing to you, the book is likely worth buying just for them – and you will get a ton of additional content to explore. Take a look and see what you think:

1) Hikayat Sri Bujang, or, The Tale of the Naga Sage – Zen Cho – Zen Cho’s story is about a naga dragon named Hikayat who abandoned his family (who rule the sea) to live atop a mountain and try to gain enlightenment. He remains there for thousands of years until his sister comes to tell him his father is dying. Hikayat returns home to take over his father’s throne – but finds he can’t quite give up his mountaintop retreat. In the course of commuting back and forth between his mountain and the sea, his natural aura creates monsoons and wrecks the countryside, and he is forced to think about the consequences of his actions.

This story is both cute and clever. It does a really good job of both modernizing dragons while also speaking to their eternal aspects from lore. The reader gets a true understanding of how Cho envisions dragons as their beings that don’t hate humanity but simply do not notice them in their comings and goings. It is fun, cute, emotional, and funny. Definitely recommend.

2) Yuli – Daniel Abraham – This is one of the metaphorical dragons. Abraham tells the story of an US veteran of the War in Afghanistan who comes home to find that his family has abandoned him and left a grandson he doesn’t know on his doorstep. He resents the burden he has been left with, but quickly finds he has much bigger problems to worry about. While the soldier was in the Middle East, he stole a ton of money and brought it back with him. Now enemies have come looking for his hoard and he will destroy any insignificant insects that even think of laying a hand on his treasure…

The metaphor here is fantastic. The story is told from split perspectives. In one, the grandson is playing a game of dungeons and dragons with his friends trying to attack a dragon and steal its treasure. In the second perspective, the grandfather (and metaphorical dragon) is defending his hoard from those who would try to take it. The prose here was phenomenal and the execution of the concept was the best in the entire anthology.

3) Habitat – K. J. Parker – This is one of the more “classic” dragon shorts about a dragon hunter who is recruited by a king to capture a dragon. The story tells the reader about the childhood of the protagonist during which he accidentally killed a dragon and managed to get a reputation as a dragon hunter. It then goes into a lot of fun gritty details about how Parker’s dragons work and how hard they are to hunt and capture while the protagonist tracks a dragon for the king.

This book is a great mix of old and new. The dragons scratch that itch I have for big dangerous beasts that knights set out to slay – with a lot of subversion of expectations mixed in. This short is only a handful of pages long and yet Parker manages to work in a few twists that surprise and delight. I really enjoyed this one, and it continues to cement my opinion that Parker is a great short writer (and a great writer in general).

4) The Nine Curves River – R. F. Kuang – In The Nine Curves River Kuang tells the story of two sisters who are walking into town for a ceremony. The entire story takes place over the course of the walk and is mostly filled with reflection from the older sister about the siblings’ life together. The older sister is very plain and untalented, whereas her younger sister is filled to the brim with talent, beauty, and intelligence. This results, unsurprisingly, in a life filled with jealousy and spite from the older sister – until this walk. The younger sister has been selected to be sacrificed to the dragon that rules the area, and the end of the walk will be the end of the younger girl’s life.

Yeah, so, holy christ this story is a gutshot. It is by far the most emotional of all the shorts and as a person with siblings, it felt like Kuang was bombarding me from orbit. It is a masterful work of fiction and I cried at least twice while reading it. It made me sad for a day and I ended up sending awkward ‘I love you’ texts to my brothers. Highly recommended.

5) The Long WalkKate Elliott – Elliott’s The Long Walk is a powerful feminist piece that isn’t afraid to bare its teeth. It tells the story of a widow who recently lost her husband. In Elliott’s world, the sons of the family need to give the church a massive donation upon the death of their father or their mother, of the obviously useless sex, will be thrown into the sea with her husband’s body. The story is about the man’s funeral, the family coming up with the funds to keep their mother alive, and the woman processing the death and her realization that she is a commodity in the world. There are dragons involved but I don’t have enough space to explain how.

The Long Walk is a very smart and powerful commentary on the way society treats women in a package with fantastic prose and an inventive world. It made me think a lot about what women struggle with on a day-to-day basis and reassess some of my preconceived notions about what it means to be a woman. Forced me to do some introspections, great writing, A+.

Despite my minor complaints, this anthology is a great collection of works and one of the better anthologies I have ever read. I recommend that you pick it up and skip around to the stories that inspire your curiosity. There is a lot to find in this big book of dragons.

Rating: The Book of Dragons – 7.5/10
-Andrew

The Poppy War – The Makings Of Greatness

35068705For my older readers, you know how, when you turn on the Olympics and see these 18 year old athletes achieving tremendous success, you start to feel incredibly old? This month I got to experience that for the first time with a book. The Poppy War, by R. F. Kuang, is a Chinese inspired fantasy about a magical school. Kuang is in her early 20’s and I am astounded that an author this young created something of this quality. Before I start heaping on more praise, let’s talk about the plot of the book.

The Poppy War follows Rin, a war orphan raised by a pair of drug lords because they were legally obligated to take her in after the last conflict. To escape being sold as a bride, Rin tests into the most prestigious military academy in land where she will be trained alongside the children of aristocrats on how to be a general. Upon arriving at the school, Rin realizes that even though she tested in – her orphan background and peasant upbringing does not endear her to her teachers or classmates, and she has a lot of work to do to succeed at the school. The one advantage she has is she seems to have a connection to a mysterious teacher that no one else talks to and he may be able to teach her the art of shamanism.

There is a distinct Harry Potter vibe going on here: orphan with terrible step-family goes to magical school to escape terrible previous life. However, that is where the direct comparisons end for me, and I am happy that Kuang did a good job of making The Poppy War her own book. Rin is a likeable character with an interesting story. Watching her explore the world and master challenges thrown at her is very satisfying. I love all the time we spend in her classes learning about the world, and she is surrounded by a host of interesting side characters that made the book more fun to read. The school itself is awesome, feeling like a place I myself want to attend. The shamanism teacher is great, on par with a number of my other favorite teacher characters throughout fantasy. All of this creates an engrossing backdrop for an exciting and fun plot that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

The world itself is also fascinating. I love the history of the empire where Rin lives. As I mentioned, the school that Rin tests into is an extremely prestigious military academy to train generals. While famous schools in books are not new, Kuang’s angle for its importance was very original. The school is not prestigious for training the greatest military minds of all time or because it has a history of greatness. Instead, the school is elevated above its peers because it is seen by the governing leadership as a chance to finally stop losing wars. The empire does not have the best track record in its poppy wars (for which the book is named). They have been on the losing side twice, and are getting rather tired of it. To combat this, they established a premier school with the hopes of distilling the best and brightest to win the coming conflicts. All of this adds a deep feeling of genuine urgency to the classes and lessons. These are not kids taking abstract classes with no application or stakes, these are people trying to distinguish themselves to be the leaders in a war that is right around the corner. This was a fascinating change to the magical school formula and I loved it.

For all my praise, The Poppy War is not without faults. The two issues I had with the book were its prose and its pacing. At times the prose could feel rather rough. There were repeated phrases or responses in the same paragraph occasionally and the dialogue could feel wooden and awkward once in awhile. In addition, while the pacing was good for the majority of the time – there were clear sections where the book moved way too fast to fully grasp events and lost me as a reader. There were scenes I had to read multiple times to understand what was happening and scenes that felt like they had little to no emotional payoff because they moved too fast. However, both of these problems are things that authors tend to improve on as they write more, and with her powerful skills in tons of other areas I expect Kuang to only get better.

The Poppy War was a fun, engrossing, journey to a world I wish I could visit and a school I wish I could attend. With its strong characters, interesting world building, and intriguing plot it is a great read that I would recommend to anyone. I look forward to seeing what R. F. Kuang has in store for us next, as I expect her next book will be even better.

Rating: The Poppy War – 8.0/10
-Andrew