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[BOOK REVIEW] Black Dragon, White Dragon edited by Robert J. Santa

Note: A few years ago I wrote a series of reviews for The Fix Short Fiction Review. Unfortunately, I recently learned from Jason Sanford that The Fix can no longer be found online so I’m reprinting the reviews here.

Genre: Fantasy
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Ricasso Press
Publication Date: December 1, 2008
ISBN-10: 0981932304
ISBN-13: 978-0981932309

Dragons. Whether Western or Eastern style, these beasts have captured the imagination of children and romantics everywhere. Are these myths holdovers of a memory of the gigantic beasts called dinosaurs? Or were they once a reality? No one knows, but these strange creatures have been hand in hand with fantasy ever since it was popularized by J. R. R. Tolkien’s dragon Smaug. Many, many epic and heroic fantasies have featured dragons. While there is currently a trend away from using them in the fantasy genre, they will never fully leave – they are simply too much a part of the weft and weave of many readers’ understanding of fantasy.

Black Dragon, White Dragon is an anthology of stories about dragons in myriad forms and in myriad settings. Editor Robert J. Santa has brought together many talented voices, some old, some new to celebrate the dragon in literature. Each story approaches dragons differently – some as a fairy tales, some as a reality, others mix and match legends and still others poke fun – but all share an appreciation of the dragon in fantasy. Each narrative is introduced by an explanation of the story’s genesis from the author of the tale, an anecdote which will be useful to writers wanting to know how writers generate ideas for stories and providing an interesting background for the reader.

The collection begins with a story by Eugie Foster entitled “Li T’ien and the Dragon Nian”. This tale presents and Eastern style dragon, and gives a Rudyard Kipling like explanation of the Chinese New Year. This is an excellent retelling of a traditional tale. Foster makes the characters interesting, keeps it simple, and keeps the pace while providing concrete details. The tale becomes something that would be told by a fireside on Chinese New Year, both informative and entertaining.

Steve Goble reprises a character that he has used before. Scratch the scribe writes in his own private journal the story of “Ostrossius and the Drake that Bothered No One”. Scratch does not have a high opinion of the hero Ostrossius and the end result is a funny tale that mocks the traditional heroic ideal. The story is a bit violent and sexual, but it is quite hilarious.

“God’s Wrath” by Heidi Wessman Kneale has a female protagonist who is willing to think outside the box. Though a dragon has been terrorizing the town for some time, including being a carrier of disease, it is only one young woman who is able to make possible the end of the dragon’s reign of terror. It is an interesting concept, the notion of a dragon as a carrier of disease. Kneale also does well in not having the protagonist be the only hero, really making this story be about people working together for a common good. Nicely wrought.

Mark Yohalem’s “Herbert and the Wyrm” pits one prodigious eater against another, Herbert the human and a sun-eating dragon. This wry tale takes the concept of “champion versus the beast” and adds a unique twist. “Herbert and the Wyrm” is a fanciful and creative tale of a modern man sliding into a medieval world. It draws comparison to works by Stephen Donaldson.

“Sea and Sky” by Katherine Shaw is a pleasant tale about finding companionship after years of loneliness. Spider the dragon has been alone for a long time, but when a young fledgling falls down at his doorstep, he can’t help but befriend her. This a nice story, although there is not a whole lot to it. Shaw provides a little suspense and worry, but readers will know that it will work out in the end. This narrative would make a wonderful illustrated book for children.

Martin Owton mocks company bureaucracy with the story of “Hardcastle’s Dragon”. The dragon is really just a side note to the tale of Squire Hardcastle’s attempt to find someone in to remove the dragon terrorizing his lands. Hardcastle’s frustration come through clearly in this writing, and any reader with experience in large companies, or anyone who has had to work with any government will empathize. Hardcastle’s solution is one we all wish we had when faced with so much expensive red tape.

“Keeping Company” is a story of the clash of religions in the time of the Norse. The company consists of a Christian, a Wootanman, and a third who is agnostic. Adrian Simmons showcases the bravery of each man as they seek to slay a dragon, and the appreciation each garners for the other in the face of a challenge none could face alone. I think this story tried to bit off a little more than it could chew. The intent was noble, but the final ending draws standard postmodern conclusions, which are at odds with the beliefs the primary characters espouse.

Jennifer Schwabach’s tale of “The Ordinary Dragon” is unique in its Latin American setting. It’s a nice tale about a boy sent to find a new dragon guardian for his poor village, and how he and the dragon he finds save it from ruffians. Schwabach’s original setting for a dragon story and the legend style writing make this a fun tale.

The story of “Dragon’s Hide”, set in Armand Rosamilia’s shared world of Freehold, is about how Tal Brannock got the dragon hide he wears in other previously published tales. This is a standard, uninteresting tale of a pact made between hero and dragon. The portion where Brannock is in town is wholly unconnected to how the narrative ends, and so just provides filler. Altogether it is a disappointing story.

“Shandango Dance” by Sara Michael mixes gardening and dragon lore by telling the story of the day the snapdragon’s dance. Told through a little girl’s eyes, this very short story is filled with well-wrought imagery and metaphor.

“Lesson Learned” according to author TW Williams’ introduction, is about “the time-honored themes of prejudice and intolerance.” While that may have been the intent, what we really get is a story about scientific endeavor, a story about the desire to know the natural world and the explorations it drove men to. It brings to mind the era of the Industrial Revolution and the founding of the organizations like the National Geographic Society, who went to the ends of the earth to find new flora and fauna for scientific study. In this tale, the protagonist discovers a previously unknown race of dragon, but the scientific community – as represented by his mentor – refuses to acknowledge the find. Like many a scientist before him, the protagonist is forced to offer proofs of his claims. What results is a tale that except for its setting would best be called steampunk for the mindset it represents. It is a paean to the Age of Darwin and an excellent story.

Constance Brewer builds on ancient Asian military strategy to tell the story of “The Borrowed Sword”. This story of a battle between two armies is really fascinating. Brewer makes the central event a battle between kite fliers, something that would seem rather innocuous, and then she writes it excitingly. The tale becomes a concrete and vivid example of the ancient proverbs woven into the story.

James S. Dorr weaves together the vampire mythos with dragon lore in “The Bala Worm”. The earl of a small village in Wales must team up with a student to find out why young girls have gone missing. Dorr creates a plausible explanation for the origin of dragons and manages to throw a little vampirism as well. This story is astoundingly original in concept and the plot twist at the end, while predictable, is thoroughly satisfying.

“I Dreamed of Griffons in Flight” by Jeff Crook is a tale of death. The point-of-view character is the one who is dying. There is imagery/metaphor about a wine-maker that is in some way related to the death, but it was too difficult to understand. The story reads as if it were part of a larger canvas, which the author states in the introduction it is, and there are just too many loose ends in the story by its conclusion. As a death scene in a larger tale, I could appreciate it, but on its own, it is disconnected.

M. L. Birch writes a narrative about a young girl who discovers and raises a dragon egg. “A Pet of Her Own” is a cautionary tale about the responsibilities of pet ownership and an entertaining one about the bonds between a person and her pet. Birch’s story is like the work of Patricia Wrede in its content and Peter Beagle in its style.

“The Black Butcher” by Anna M. Lowther is a pirate tale which features the only sea dragon of this anthology. Unfortunately, the execution of this story is merely adequate. The primary character, a twenty year pirate veteran, suddenly develops a conscience. This violation of character in a completely unbelievable manner lessens the story’s enjoyment. And since that violation is what the story hinges on, as well as an unexplained ability of the magically controlled dragon to act freely, the story lacks clarity.

Gerald Costlow writes humorous flash fiction piece in “Let Me Explain”. A young wizard writes to his king for his freedom, after getting rid of the dragon in a manner not sanctioned by his ruler. The story is quite comical, and an excellent addition to the anthology.

“San Marino and the Dragon” by Kelly A. Harmon is the story of one city’s bargain with a dragon, and how forgetfulness can lead to destruction. Set in 1600’s Italy, the story of the dragon’s bargain with the city is a traditional fairy tale about greed and complacency. A pleasant and entertaining read.

Christopher Heath tells a tale of trickery in “Azieran: The Traveler’s Four”. By hook and crook, four elementalists manage to conquer a dragon. It is an Aesop’s fable without the moral injunction at the end. Nicely written, although the beginning is a tad confusing when paragraph four moves from saying “they” to saying “the human”. The author moves from plural to singular without a clear identification of the events in between. Only on reading further and some guesswork is it made clear that at some point the four elementalists decide to approach the dragon separately, rather than together.

“Western Front, 1914” turns WWI into a battle not between the Central Powers and the Entente Powers, but between magic monsters and humanity. Peter Friend’s soldiers must use virgins as part of their army, as only virgins have any power to delay or stop such beings as unicorns or dragons. It is good alternate history story, and one that would make a good setting for a novel.

“The Elephant and the Dragon” by Sean Melican is the only story set in Africa. Dragons are hunted as big game by British. It is a story about colonialism, about taking from Africa, as told through the eyes of the last prince of the Zande. The narrative is a unique take on a setting for dragons, and is clever in its explanation of their science as well.

Peter M. Ball’s “The Dragonkeeper’s Wife” is sad. Though ostensibly about the Dragon, it is really the story of two people pulled apart by their beliefs. Anyone who has ever dated or been married to someone who was diametrically opposed to them philosophically or politically will feel the import of this tale. “The Dragonkeeper’s Wife” is sad, but it ends on note of hope, and is well-wrought in a Gene Wolfe, Peter Beagle fashion.

TW Williams’ second contribution to the anthology, “Rip-Snorter” is a Paul Bunyan tall tale with dragons. Like its predecessors, it tells quite a whopper, and gives an origin story to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Williams’ captures the feel of the tale as told round the fire, and its utter implausibility makes it all the more engaging.

The anthology ends with a tale by Edith Nesbit, “The Last of the Dragons”. Nesbit was a Victorian writer who wrote children’s fairy tales among other things. Aptly titled for ending this anthology, “The Last of the Dragons” embodies the spirit of hope, innovation, and general politeness that is our perception of Victorian Britain. It is Mary Poppins with dragons.

Editor Robert J. Santa has compiled an anthology of dragons that is broad in content. A few stories are surprising; others are satisfying in their familiarity, and still others beautifully poetic. Black Dragon, White Dragon is a good addition to any dragon fan’s shelf.

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