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

Sorcerer To The Crown: Magic Isn’t Just For White Men Anymore

Today I am going to review the upcoming Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, a book that filled me with mixed emotions. The book is a historical fiction set in a period that is very similar to the famous Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, namely, England during the Napoleonic wars. However, while the two books share a setting and a similar English charm, that is where most of the similarities end.

Sorcerer to the Crown is about two characters, Zacharias and Prunella, as they navigate all sorts of twists and turns in the plot. Zacharias is the adoptive son of the previous Sorcerer to the Crown, a title held by the head of England’s magic group, and at the start of the book has just become the Sorcerer to the Crown himself in the wake of his adoptive father’s death. He has just begun a two fold task of trying to prove himself as deserving of the esteemed title, and to solve an increasingly large problem; that England’s magic supply from the fae is slowly disappearing for an undiscovered reason. However, there is also the fact that Zacharias is African and the first ever black magician in society in a time where that is frowned upon (to put it lightly). This adds a really well written element of dealing with racism to his character and for me did a great job of providing a POV of a character struggling to be judged on his merits instead of his skin color. On top of this, Zacharias is just a likable character. He is quiet, thoughtful, clever, wise, patient and generally a good human being. I enjoyed every moment with Zacharias and wanted to read about him all the time.

And then we have Prunella. Now Prunella certainly wasn’t unlikable or poorly written, I just found her lacking when compared to Zacharias. Prunella is a young woman with a mysterious past who was abandoned at a school to help you women curb their ability to cast magic (which is seen as unseemly). She is unhappy with her lot, and has grand plans to make her way to London and find a husband. She quickly realizes that she is an exceptionally powerful magic caster and decides she would like to try her hand at being a sorcerer as well. There is a very easy comparison between both Zacharias and Prunella because they are both going through large trials where society is telling them they can be who they want to be. However, while I found Zacharias’s story empowering and thrilling, I found Prunella’s repetitive and frustrating. This is exacerbated by the fact that the book begins with a heavy focus on Zacharias, and slowly shifts that focus to Prunella instead, causing a noticeable drop in my love of the book as I went on.

That being said, even with the drop I still found the book very enjoyable. In particular, I think Zen Cho has a real talent for revealing new information. She works in twists and reveals in such a matter-of-fact manner, as though everyone other than you knew a side character was a unicorn the whole time, that they hit all the harder and made me laugh and grin with each twist. The plot of the book is interesting, and I thought the books usage of the fae world was standout compared to a lot of its competitors. In addition, despite my focus on Zacharias and Prunella, there is an impressive cast of side characters that are well developed, fun, and add a lot to the story.

While it ended up not being the story I thought I was, it was a pretty good story none the less. I will likely read the sequels and have already recommended it to a few friends. So if you like historical fiction, are looking for a fix similar to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel, or want protagonists who aren’t white farm boys, I recommend checking out Sorcerer to the Crown.

Rating: 6.5/10