I don’t like dragons.
This is probably not the first sentence you’d expect to find in a review of Wings of Fire, an anthology devoted exclusively to dragon stories, but I thought it best to get it out of the way right from the start.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with dragons. They’re just terribly overused, one of those tired genre mainstays that people who typically don’t read a lot of fantasy will expect in a fantasy novel because they were practically unavoidable for a long time. To this day, I confess to having to suppress a mental groan whenever I encounter them.
For a long time, I actively avoided reading any fantasy novel with the word dragon in the title. Granted, I made several exceptions to this rule in the past, most notably The King’s Dragon by Kate Elliott, Dragon by Steven Brust, and (back when I still read THE WHEEL OF TIME novels) The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan. However, the perceptive reader will note that none of the dragons in those titles actually refers to the traditional fire-breathing flying reptile (instead, they refer to an army unit, a Dragaeran noble house, and, well, some guy called Rand). So, I considered all of those exceptions perfectly allowable.
(I should also add here that, despite my dislike for dragons in general, I’m of course a big fan of Mettlestorm the Bookwyrm, seen on FanLit’s logo, and designed by the multi-talented Janny Wurts.)
So, with all of this out of the way, I’m here to inform you that Wings of Fire, an anthology of short stories about dragons, is excellent. The line-up of authors is great. The stories deal with a huge variety of dragons, so there isn’t too much repetition. Most of the stories are good, a few of them are stunning, and only one or two (out of 26) are disappointing. In short, this is a great anthology.
You may just want to avoid reading it cover to cover, and instead read a few stories here and there between other books, unless you 1) urgently need to turn in your review of the book, and/or 2) have a dragon phobia and are attempting to overcome it by applying prolonged exposure. (In which case, may we suggest one of the lovely tea mugs or t-shirts bearing the likeness of Mettlestorm the Bookwyrm? Just imagine the progress you’ll make, seeing your entire family decked out in dragon-decorated gear!)
Listing the 27 authors included in Wings of Fire would lead to a list of names that’s too long to read without having your eyes glaze over, but trimming the list down is almost impossible, because almost all of them are big names in the genre. I just wouldn’t know who to leave out. So, at the risk of glazed eyes, and in order of appearance: Peter S. Beagle, Ursula K. Le Guin, George R.R. Martin, Holly Black, Michael Swanwick, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Patricia McKillip, Orson Scott Card, Barry N. Malzberg, Jane Yolen, Margo Lanagan, Elizabeth Bear, Anne McCaffrey, James Blaylock, Pat Murphy, Naomi Novik, Gordon Dickson, Elizabeth A. Lynn, Robert Reed, Charles de Lint, Tanith Lee, Harlan Ellison © and Robert Silverberg, C.J. Cherryh, Roger Zelazny, S.P. Somtow and Lucius Shepard. Only 2 of the 26 stories included here are originals (by Holly Black and Margo Lanagan), so there’s a chance that you’ll have encountered some of the other ones already, but as editors Jonathan Strahan and Marianne S. Jablon set out to compile “the best and most widely loved stories” they could find, this is perfectly understandable and acceptable.
The variety of dragons included here is amazing (and likely to blow any reviewer’s silly preconceived notions about dragons being a “tired mainstay” right out of the water). Fire-breathing dragons, ice dragons, mechanical dragons, dragons built in a garage in the suburbs. Inter-dimensional dragons, and dragons who appreciate classical music. Little dragons that fit on a bookshelf, and dragons so big that entire cities are built around them. Funny dragons and tragic ones. If the anthology has one possible weakness, it’s that many people will have a specific idea of what constitutes a dragon (say, something similar to J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Smaug), and Wings of Fire jumps from one idea to the next, some of them quite non-traditional. On the other hand, it’s sure to expand those readers’ horizons significantly.
The stories are likewise a mixed bag, from traditional high fantasy to urban fantasy, steampunk, YA, and even one poem. In an anthology that’s this varied in terms of styles, almost everyone will have different favorites. Nevertheless, here are the five stories that made the biggest impression on me:
- Elizabeth Bear‘s “Orm the Beautiful” applies the economics concept of scarcity on dragons in a beautiful, melancholy way.
- Margo Lanagan‘s “The Miracle Aquilina” (one of the two stories originally commissioned for this anthology) is a powerful, feminist story of quiet strength and independence.
- Gordon Dickson‘s “St. Dragon and the George” is a funny, touching portal fantasy story that’s plays on the legend of St. George, just like Roger Zelazny‘s hilarious “The George Business.”
- S.P. Somtow‘s “Dragon’s Fin Soup” somehow combines a powerful story of changing cultural values with one of the more memorable dragons in the anthology.
- Lucius Shepard‘s “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaulle” impressively closes out Wings of Fire with a layered and intriguing story that mixes art, politics and romance — and like a few other stories in the anthology, it contains enough material to merit a full novel.
But again, other readers may have entirely different favorites, or prefer one of the stories set in established fantasy or SF universes, such as the PERN story by Anne MacCaffrey, the TEMERAIRE story by Naomi Novik, or the EARTHSEA story by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Most themed anthologies will have some armchair quarterbacks complaining that certain authors or stories are missing. I would have loved to see a Terry Pratchett story (his dragons, to be able to generate their fiery breath, have such a complex digestive system, involving a few dozen separate stomachs, that feeding them the wrong thing will occasionally cause one to explode tragically in mid-flight) and a Steven Erikson story (his “Eleint” dragons are simply one of the most powerful and mysterious representations in the genre). Then again, I perfectly understand why they weren’t included here — for one, I don’t think there actually are any short stories featuring their dragons.
Just like all the best anthologies, there’s something in Wings of Fire for everyone. It’s a good stepping stone for readers looking for new authors or series to read, and a worthy attempt to show how varied the concept of dragons has become. It makes a good nightstand book, to dip into once in a while. Just don’t read all the stories back to back, lest you end up seeing little dragons everywhere.