SFM: Shepard, de Bodard, Bear, Jemisin, Parker, Holland

Short Fiction Monday: Our weekly exploration of free short fiction available on the internet. This week’s theme, just for fun, is stories dealing with dragons. 

The Man Who Painted The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard (1984, free online at Baen.com (sample from the Bestiary anthology), originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, also collected in The Dragon Griaule). 1985 Hugo and 1984 Nebula nominee (novelette), 1985 World Fantasy Award nominee (novella)

In 19th century South America, “in a world separated from this one by the thinnest margin of possibility,” a 6,000 foot long, 750 foot tall dragon named Griaule lays immobilized, paralyzed by a wizard’s slightly miscast spell that was meant to slay him. Over the millennia he is gradually covered with grass, earth and trees, but the dragon’s mind is still alive. It has an evil influence over the area, exuding dour vibrations that influence all who live under Griaule’s mental shadow.

Despite hundreds of plans and attempts, no one can figure out how to finally kill such an enormous dragon, until a painter named Meric Cattanay arrives, proposing “death by art”: he will enlist an army of workers to paint the dragon Griaule with poisonous paints. The city fathers are dubious but agree to give him a chance, even though Meric warns them it may take forty or fifty years to kill the dragon. Meric’s grand plan actually began as a con, a way for Meric to make money for a few years, doing the work he wanted without having to worry about finding commissions. But after he explores Griaule’s body and gazes into his mesmerizing eye, he becomes serious about his project, and it becomes his life’s work.

The story follows Meric Cattanay over the next forty years, while he undertakes this enormous work of covering Griaue with beautiful but poisonous paint. It’s a fanciful world, but filled with wondrous, lively details that make this novelette highly readable. Both the mysterious and the mundane, the good and the bad in human nature, are revealed through the events of the story. At the same time, Shepard has created a complex, layered story filled with ideas and symbols that are a delight to try to unpack. The faux-scholarly quotes that bookend the story shed an alternative light on motives and events. Highly recommended. I’m probably going to go buy the whole collection of Griaule stories now …


“The Dragon’s Tears” by Aliette de Bodard (2008, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue, originally published in Electric Velocipede)

In this Chinese fairy tale-inspired short story, every year three unstoppable horsemen scour Huan Ho’s city of Fei Weng, taking whatever and whomever they please. One horseman is dressed in gold, the second one in silver, and the third in purest black. Huan Ho, who lives with his ailing mother, is determined to enter the door on the hillside that the horsemen come from, looking for a cure for her sickness … as long as the horsemen pass by their home first. Huan Ho is certain that on the other side of the mysterious door he will find the Dragon’s Tears, an enameled flask that holds the full power of the Dragons: the power to instantly heal.

Aliette de Bodard channels the Chinese fairy tale traditions, with dragons, ghosts, and brave adventurers going to strange places for a noble cause, and weaves into them a story based on the Confucian value of caring for your parents when are old. This story is rich in symbolism, weaving together disparate feelings and values like hope, fear, sorrow, sacrifice and love, and exploring how our choices and values may change us.


“Snow Dragons” by Elizabeth Bear (2009, free at Subterranean Press)

The men travel through deep snow to the high mountain, with their armor and axes, spears and shields, to kill the dragon who lives on the mountaintop. What they don’t realize is that what lives on top of the mountain is a princess, watching them as they come to try to slay her. She is princess and dragon, shifting between forms, both beauty and beast, not entirely either one or the other. She wears the heavy coats and trousers of the men she’s murdered.

She tells me she could fall upon them from a great height, like the eagle in the Tennyson poem. She could push snow down on them, thundering avalanches, or she could tear up the fragile tracks that guide the trains’ toilsome journeys. But that is not the way the legend unfolds, and there’s always the chance that if she lets the story happen, it will work out the way it’s supposed to—with a happily ever after.

 

I think, deep down, she hopes so.

The narrator is a nameless person who came to the mountain, not to slay the dragon, but to be eaten by it. But dragons, even unreal ones, never do what you want them to do (“If they did, they wouldn’t be dragons”). So now this person stays with the princess, assisting her, terrified by her, and yet loving her.

It’s an evocative but elusive tale, filled with frost and fire imagery, with a few fleeting plum blossoms. It’s interesting that we are told very little about the narrator; we don’t even know if this person is a woman or a man. Not much happens in this story; it’s more about creating a sense of this moment in time, these characters, in this icebound world on top of a lonely mountain.


“Cloud Dragon Skies” by N.K. Jemisin (2005, free at Strange Horizons)

Four strangers of the sky-people who live on a ring habitat beyond Mars, dressed in hazmat suits, come to Earth to visit the farm of Nahautu’s father. They request permission to use a cottage on the farm for their research purposes, and are given permission. Nahautu and her father live a simple life on the farm, as is now required of all people who remain on Earth.

There had been only two choices at the time of the great exodus: the Ring, where there could be cities and cars and all the conveniences of life as it once was, or Earth and nothing. Most chose the Ring, even though it meant traveling to the great belt of rocks beyond Mars, from which the Earth is merely a tiny pinpoint lost in a black, starry sky. For those who chose Earth, the lama manipa and the rebbe and the storytellers came forth and taught the people anew all the ways they had once scorned. And all the clans everywhere, no matter their chosen ways, swore the same oath: to live simply. Those who could not or would not were exiled to the Ring.

But Nahautu is curious about the strangers, particularly a young man among them, who flatters her with his romantic attention, which she has never gotten from the men in her area.

The strangers are researching the reasons behind the change several years ago in the color of the sky, from blue to red, with streaks of yellow, violet, green, and blue, and dragon-like clouds that twist and dance among the colors. The change in the sky alarms the sky-people, but doesn’t seem to be harming those still on earth. Should they take action to neutralize and try to undo the change?

This short story from N.K. Jemisin has an aura of an African folk tale to it, but also deals with current issues like the ways humans have thoughtlessly changed the earth where we live, and the need to respect nature’s ways. Nahautu sees the blind spots in the vision of the sky-people, even though there are also shortcomings in Earth’s back-to-basics society, where she is not appreciated as a woman due to her outspokenness. The cloud dragons, so real to Nahautu yet merely fanciful imaginings to the sky-man who loves her, seem to represent the spirits of nature.


“The Dragonslayer of Merebarton” by K.J. Parker (2013, free at Clarkesworld, originally anthologized in Fearsome Journeys)

Dodinas le Cure Hardy, a 56 year old knight, was a moderately successful knight in his day (“three second places in ranking tournaments, two thirds, usually in the top twenty out of an average field of forty or so”), but now he has retired to his rather dilapidated estate. He’s attempting to mend his own chamber pot when he’s informed of a dragon and asked to kill it. Dodinas is extremely reluctant to go ― he’s too old, and his wife is angrily worried that he’ll be killed ― but he’s the knight, and in the end he feels responsible for dealing with the dragon problem.

… in all those old tales of gallantry and errantry, when the poet sings of the knight wandering in a dark wood and encountering the evil to be fought, the wrong to be put right, “knight” in that context is just shorthand for a knight and his squire and his armor-bearer and his three men-at-arms and the boy who leads the spare horses. The others aren’t mentioned by name, they’re subsumed in him, he gets the glory or the blame but everyone knows, if they stop to think about it, that the rest of them were there too; or who lugged around the spare lances, to replace the ones that got broken? And who got the poor bugger in and out of his full plate harness every morning and evening?

So dragon-fighting is a group effort, for good or ill, and in the end it will take the efforts of many, and exact a high price. Dodinas is somewhat an anti-hero, fully aware of his shortcomings, but he has a core of honor that motivates him. He tells this story with weary humor, clearly wishing he could be doing anything but dragon-fighting, for which he and his men are poorly equipped. But he’s compelled by his sense of responsibility to take action.

It’s a somewhat farcical but gritty tale. I appreciated Dodinas’ wry voice and the realistic spin on the responsibilities of knighthood and the vagaries of dragon-hunting.


“Dragon’s Deep” by Cecelia Holland (2009, free at Clarkesworld, originally anthologized in The Dragon Book)

Perla’s small fishing village is visited one day by the Duke and fifty of his knights, who inform the villagers that because they are the best fishermen in the country, their taxes will now be doubled. The knights then pillage the village, raping Perla’s sister. In desperate need, the villagers mount a late season fishing expedition, heading north to Dragon’s Deep, where the fishing will be better, instead of south to their normal (now fished out) area. They pay for their temerity: a dragon attacks, killing the men and capturing Perla. She ends up trapped in his lair, fed by the dragon in exchange for telling him stories, but desperate to escape if she can.

“Dragon’s Deep” is a moralistic tale, where good and evil collide, but are not always found where you expect them to be. Greed and cruelty, which seem to be personified by the dragon, are found not only in the Duke and his men, but also in Perla’s village, in people Perla thought she could trust. I was intrigued by how often, in several different contexts, the word “deep” is used here, reminding me of the dark depths that are in the waters, in the dragon’s lair, and in men’s hearts.


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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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5 comments

  1. I sense a theme…

    Great reviews. Thanks for introducing so many stories!

  2. As hard as it might be to sustain, I liked the theme, and you picked some really excellent and intriguing stories this week!

    • Thanks, Jana! It was actually a lot of fun, though I left off a couple of other stories that didn’t really impress me. Of course, the theme is a one-off — I’d hate to be committed to it (or any other specific theme) for more than one column, and I only plan to have a specific theme every now and then. But I’d be happy to take suggestions for other themes for future SFM columns!

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