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The Dragon Quintet
editor: Marvin Kaye
Tor paperback $13.95

review by David Hebblethwaite

What is there to say about dragons that hasn't already been said? After all, they may be one of the most emblematic fantasy creatures, but they're also one of the most clichéd (this is itself hardly an original observation; see what I mean?). Be that as it may, Marvin Kaye has assembled five original novellas, all featuring dragons. His introduction states that "the authors were given complete freedom to create whatever kind of story they pleased, provided only that each one contain a true, as opposed to a metaphorical, dragon." No great overarching themes or conceits, then - just dragons. Off we go.

Orson Scott Card gets things off to a good start with In The Dragon's House. It's the tale of Michael, who grows up in a grand gothic house with a little theatre in the cellar and a strange, locked room in the attic. As he grows, he is troubled by vivid dreams in which he becomes someone else - or something else - entirely; dreams which only make sense when Michael gains access to that forbidden room... This is a thoroughly engaging fantasy told in atmospheric prose (it's a fine evocation of childhood, too). I have only one reservation: it needs fleshing out. Card sets up the tale to have a slow, graceful trajectory; but the ending is in a rush to explain everything. Kaye's introduction to the piece says that Card wants to expand it into a novel; to do so would suit the story very well.

Elizabeth Moon takes us to more traditional fantasy territory with Judgement. Two villagers - Tam and his prospective son-in-law, Ker - discover a strange rock filled with jewels. Tam wants the 'pretties' for himself, and so contrives for Ker to be exiled from the village. Whilst in exile, Ker encounters a group of dwarfs, who reveal the true nature of the rock - and why the love of Ker's life is in danger because of it. There are some nice ideas in this novella, but it is let down by its prose style, which I found strangely flat. I also felt the philosophical debate that Moon introduces towards the end to be awkwardly tacked on.

Tanith Lee's contribution, Love In A Time Of Dragons, is the quirky tale of Graynne, a maid who persuades the latest champion in town to let her accompany him on his quest to slay a dragon. But all is not as simple as it appears´┐Ż Lee tells her story in a mythical style, and it's your reaction to this that will probably be the key factor in determining how much you enjoy the piece. Sometimes, I found the writing beautiful; at other times, it left me cold. I could say the same about the novella as a whole.

Joust by Mercedes Lackey is perhaps the most conventional story in the book, and the only one in which the dragon feels like a standard-issue fantasy beast. Vetch, a slave-boy, is 'rescued' by Ari, one of the elite dragon-riding Jousters. He is taken back to the Jousters' compound, where it becomes his task to look after Ari's dragon, Khefri. And, after a while, the opportunity to escape presents itself... I am usually wary of conventional fantasies like Joust, but this is actually highly enjoyable. It's well told and rattles along nicely to a satisfying conclusion. Like Card, Lackey seeks to turn her story into a novel; unlike Card, she has written something that feels complete by itself. It would be interesting to find out what happens to Vetch next.

The final novella is the strangest and, perhaps, the best. The titular 'King Dragon' of Michael Swanwick's tale is mechanical and jet-propelled, but no less alive for that. One day, it crashes near a village and proclaims itself ruler, taking young Will as its servant. The rest I shall keep quiet about, so as not to spoil the wonders of Swanwick's world. Suffice it to say that he's created a setting that feels as though it could contain any number of remarkable stories, and King Dragon [a spinoff from Swanwick's novel, The Iron Dragon's Daughter] is a tantalising glimpse, and a feast for the imagination.

There is no firm consensus among these novellas as to what makes a dragon, and that is perhaps the point; maybe dragons are far too complex for mere humans to ever comprehend fully. But we have five visions of dragons in The Dragon Quintet and, though some are more successful than others, this volume an intriguing read that shows us there is still life in an old fantasy creature. It's good to be reminded of that.
The Dragon Quintet

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