Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Strong Medicine
Books That Cure What Ails You
    by John Joseph Adams
July 2006

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik
Del Rey, 2006, $7.50

Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik
Del Rey, 2006, $7.50

Black Powder War by Naomi Novik
Del Rey, 2006, $7.50

In the old days of world exploration, areas of the globe deemed dangerous (or unexplored) were often marked with the phrase "Here There Be Dragons." Of course, in the real world this was just silly superstition, but in Naomi Novik's books it's quite literally true—there be dragons all right, and lots of them.

If you imagine the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian mashed up with Anne McCaffrey's Pern books, then you've got a pretty good idea of what His Majesty's Dragon is like. Of course, describing it this way makes it sound quite derivative, and that's unfair; while Novik was clearly inspired by these two sources, she takes those tropes and combines them in a way that makes the result something wholly her own...and quite a lot of fun.

The adventure beings during the Napoleonic Wars when Captain Will Laurence, of HMS Reliant, captures a French frigate. She's a valuable prize, but waiting in its hold is something even more valuable: a dragon's egg. The crew will be due for a handsome reward, for though Britain's Aerial Corps claims superior skill to the other nations of the world, the French can outbreed them two to one; so any new addition to their ranks is more than welcome. However, the French ship had a rough time of it, transporting their cargo and was running quite late with their delivery, so the dragon's egg, which was supposed to be delivered unborn, is due to hatch quite shortly after the capture. This leaves very little time for dilly-dally; dragons must be harnessed immediately out of the shell, otherwise they might turn feral and be forever useless to the Corps. Seeing no other options, Laurence has a name drawn from a hat to see who among them would partner himself with the dragon. Though all are eager to serve his country, none of the men are particularly eager to leave their beloved Navy for the Corps.

Though one of the sailors is selected, when the dragon emerges from its shell, it fixates upon Laurence, and so the captain has no choice but to harness the beast himself. Much to his (and everyone's) surprise, the dragon speaks—English no less—right out of the shell. Having no notion of a name, the dragon requests one; Laurence calls him Temeraire, after a captured French ship.

The Reliant, with its priceless cargo, makes its way back to port in England, where Laurence is forced to leave his old life behind to take up his new career as an aviator. Once taken to the training grounds, he finds himself thrust into an entirely new world, one where the rigid Naval rules of discipline and respect don't necessarily apply, and women are active participants in the war (certain breeds of dragon will only be harnessed by women). Although at first glance being in the Aerial Corps seems much different from being in the Navy, some similarities soon become obvious; for instance, as the title suggests, dragons are much like His Majesty's Ships: they are outfitted with rigging and have a complete crew, not just a captain as the solitary rider.

Over the course of the journey back to England, Laurence and Temeraire bond, and even when Laurence is given the opportunity to free himself of what he initially perceived as a burden, he does not wish to take it, and indeed, neither would have Temeraire permitted it. And even as Laurence grows to think of Temeraire as a friend, and as no ordinary dragon, he has no basis for comparison; however, upon his return to England, he soon learns that Temeraire is special indeed: a noted dragon expert declares him to be an Imperial dragon, one of the highly-sought-after Chinese breeds. Typically, the Chinese do not let this breed out of the country, so this is an ominous note for the war, that the Chinese may have allied with France, for what other conclusion can be drawn from the fact that the Chinese emperor made such a gift to Bonaparte? But there are other concerns more immediate: Bonaparte is planning an offensive, and Temeraire and Laurence, and indeed all of the Corps, must do all they can to stop this invasion, or else the war will almost certainly be lost.

In Throne of Jade, Temeraire's story continues. After the battle at the end of His Majesty's Dragon, the Chinese discover that their gift to Bonaparte had fallen into British hands, and they demand the return of their dragon. To appease the Chinese, Laurence and Temeraire travel to China on a sort of diplomatic mission; not only must they convince the emperor to allow Temeraire to stay with Laurence (and the Corps), but they must attempt to keep China from formally allying themselves with France. They make the long journey by ship, on a gigantic vessel known as a dragon transport; during the voyage, Prince Yongxing tries to bond with Temeraire by teaching him Chinese and about Chinese culture, in an attempt to convince him to leave Laurence and return to his homeland. Upon arriving in China, Temeraire learns of an entirely new way of life for dragons; in Britain, they are treated as valuable soldiers, but in China they are practically worshipped. As for the men, their reception is not exactly what they'd hoped for, and tensions rise until they eventually reach a breaking point.

In Black Powder War, Laurence and Temeraire receive orders to travel to the Ottoman Empire, where they are to take possession of three dragon eggs and escort them back to Britain. The timing makes sea travel impractical, as the eggs must be delivered before hatching, so Laurence, Temeraire, and crew set off on a journey via land and air. This takes them through treacherous terrain and leads to them befriending some feral dragons, which turn out to be much more sophisticated than anyone suspected feral dragons could be, raising questions about the long-held practice of harnessing dragons at birth. After much turmoil, Laurence and company finally secure the eggs and begin transporting them home, only to find the implacable armies of Bonaparte standing in their way.

Talking dragons, or talking animals or beasts of any kind really, is no easy trick to pull off, but Novik manages it nicely. Given that there is no magic in Novik's world—the only fantasy element present is dragons, and their existence is treated scientifically—there are some issues with the talking that require some suspension of disbelief (as do some other issues with the dragons). Even if you set aside their miraculous language skills (Temeraire learned to speak fluent English through the shell in about a week's time, for instance), there is the issue of speech: just how exactly do those giant beasts make human sounds with those huge dragon jaws? There are other examples of nitpickery one could dwell on, but ultimately all of those things are irrelevant; if you can't get past them, you probably won't enjoy the books, but if you simply accept the fact that there are certain allowances that need to be made in order to have the world Novik created function, you'll likely get completely sucked into the story as I did.

One of the interesting themes explored in the books as the series goes on is how the dragons are treated. Temeraire is almost immediately somewhat rebellious as to why he must do certain things, and seemingly the only reason he goes along with orders is out of devotion to Laurence and a feeling of duty. But that doesn't stop him questioning the status quo, and he learns much during his travels that have him contemplating reforms to propose upon returning to Britain. And so too does the reader begin to long for the same reforms Temeraire longs for, but at the same time cannot help but see how such reforms could cripple Britain's defenses (and possibly cripple the series).

The heart and soul of these books is the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire. It is a complex bond, forged by ties of duty and friendship. Temeraire is at once a ship, a steed, and a friend. He is much more than a pet, but the relationship seems akin to the sort of friendship one might have with one's own beloved pet, if that pet had a human-level IQ. One of my favorite scenes in the series shows Laurence's righteous indignation at another captain's callous treatment of his dying dragon; it's more clear here than anywhere else of Laurence's devotion to Temeraire, and it's a well-executed and heart-wrenching scene. And Laurence himself is quite the idealistic hero, a good man in every sense of the word, but still flawed and sometimes filled with doubt, all of which works together to make him a realistic and well-drawn character. This duo is among the most likeable tandems in recent memory, and are a pair that I look forward to following from one adventure to the next, so long as Novik keeps writing about them.

[Note: In the UK, His Majesty's Dragon is called Temeraire, whereas in the US, the overall series is known as the Temeraire series. Also, in the UK, Throne of Jade and Black Powder War (there called Temeraire: Throne of Jade and Temeraire: Black Powder War) have not been released yet; Throne of Jade is due in August, while Black Powder War is due in January 2007.]

Dragon America by Mike Resnick
Phobos Impact, 2005, $14.95

Like Novik's Temeraire books, Dragon America is set in a historical period and adds dragons to the mix. Resnick's take on the theme has dragons being strictly a product of the Americas, so prior to the New World being discovered, civilization had developed just as it had in the real world, without knowledge of dragons.

The New World is peopled with Indian tribes as it was in the real world, only here they have coexisted with the dragons that are native to the Americas. Some species of dragons have been tamed, while others pose not much threat, while others still are outright monsters, not to be trifled with. Whereas Novik's dragons all have personalities and intelligence, and are more like individual soldiers rather than engines of war, in Dragon America, the dragons are like engines of war or pieces of equipment, and indeed some of their names even reflect this (i.e., one breed is known as landwagons).

The tale begins during the Revolutionary War, with George Washington's armies being somewhat fenced in by Cornwallis's Redcoats, and having little reason for hope. Washington dispatches his friend, the legendary frontiersman, Daniel Boone, to head west in search of Indian allies. Boone, being the adopted son of a Shawnee chief, is the perfect man for the job, but given the tempestuous relationship he has with his adopted father it's by no means a done deal. The chief does agree to give Boone some men, but it's not nearly enough; the chief offers a few hundred when thousands are needed. This leaves Boone with few options, so he and a few companions head west in search of a certain type of dragon, which (if it really exists) could turn the tide of the war...if they can find it, and figure out how to control it.

Meanwhile, George Washington learns of a patriotic woman who has managed to train the aerial species known as skyraiders. Having used skyraiders as courier pigeons for some time now, she is able to help General Washington use this new kind of messenger to his advantage. But will either Washington's messenger dragons or Boone's war dragons be enough to turn the tide against the Redcoats?

Though a fast and fun read, Dragon America is somewhat shallow; it doesn't really delve deep enough into the extraordinarily cool concept. On the one hand, the addition of dragons makes more sense here than it does in Novik's world. Since dragons were confined to the Americas, European civilization developed just as it did in the real world; whereas in Novik's world, dragons have been around and in Europe at least since the time of the Roman Empire, so the fact that civilization in the 1800s even looks remotely like ours seems somewhat of a stretch. But Resnick may have actually tried too hard to make the scenario seem scientifically plausible, and in effect sacrificed sense of wonder for verisimilitude. Resnick's dragons are not much different from dinosaurs; which is not to say having dinosaurs roaming around the Americas wouldn't have been pretty cool, it's just not what's promised by the title. Some of the dragon species are more dragon-like than others, but the most overtly draconic of these spend so little time in the spotlight that it was somewhat disappointing.

Whatever the book's failings, however, Resnick is a master raconteur, and so in his capable hands the narrative flows like water off a dragon's back. If anything, it flows a little too quickly; I would have liked to see the book be a little longer so that Resnick could have spent more time developing the characters. They're a bit threadbare, more like character sketches rather than true characters (which is not generally characteristic of Resnick's writing). The story is told almost entirely visually; there's almost no internal monologues, so we don't get to see much of what the characters are thinking.

If I hadn't read Novik's Temeraire books before reading Dragon America, I might have been more enamored with it than I am. To be fair, it was published first (though Novik's books were likely already written and sold when it was published, so she almost certainly came up with her idea independently of Resnick's novel), but first isn't always best. Although inferior to the Novik books, it's still a fun read; at the very least, it might be something you can use to tide you over until the next Temeraire book comes out.

Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology edited by James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel
Tachyon Publications, 2006, $14.95

Bruce Sterling first coined the term "slipstream" in his 1989 "CATSCAN 5" article for the now defunct magazine SF Eye. The debate as to what fiction should be included in this genre has seemingly been going on ever since, while others debated just as vigorously about whether slipstream is in fact a genre at all.

In this new anthology, editors Kelly and Kessel attempt to define slipstream once and for all, by assembling a collection of "canon" reading. In the insightful and intriguing introduction, the editors lay out their argument for what slipstream is, which basically boils down to one thing: slipstream is fiction that, as the title suggests, leaves you feeling very strange after you read it.

Though the editors put together a terrific group of stories, the anthology's goal of defining slipstream doesn't wholly succeed. The stories in the book cover so broad a range of fiction that I didn't feel like I had any better idea of what makes a story slipstream than I did at the start. Though the "feeling very strange" notion put forth in the introduction establishes a frame of reference, the stories didn't quite come together to reinforce that idea. But perhaps what is or is not slipstream is more of a question of personal taste than, say, what is or is not a fantasy story. Many of the pieces included here succeeded for me as excellent works of fiction, but whereas all of these stories left the editors "feeling very strange," for me, many of them did not.

The range of fiction is broad in genre, but also comes from a broad range of writers. The writers consist mostly of literary fantasists: Jeffrey Ford, Carol Emshwiller, Theodora Goss, Kelly Link, M. Rickert, Benjamin Rosenbaum, and Jeff VanderMeer, but you've also got core genre writers like Ted Chiang, Bruce Sterling, and Howard Waldrop; writers who straddle genre boundaries, with one foot in both camps: Karen Joy Fowler and Jonathan Lethem; and so-called "mainstream" writers playing with genre tropes (to mostly great effect): Aimee Bender, Michael Chabon, and George Saunders.

Aside from the fiction and the introductory essay, also included in the anthology are excerpts of a discussion debating slipstream called "I Want My 20th Century Schizoid Art," which originally took place on SF writer David Moles's blog. While this provided more interesting reading, the book might have been more successful in its attempt to define slipstream, or at least to create a slipstream canon, if, instead of (or perhaps in addition to) reprinting this discussion, the editors had provided some commentary on how or why each of the stories was selected for the book. Why some of the stories were included was particularly vexing to me—"Hell is the Absence of God," to give one example—and so reading an explanation of what made the story slipstream would have been appreciated. All of the writers in the book are known for writing stories that straddle genre boundaries, so, this sort of editorial afterword may have also helped put the story selections into context in terms of why the editors chose this story by the author rather than that one.

Of all the stories in the book, four of them stood out to me as being most representative of slipstream: "Al" by Carol Emshwiller, "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Airplanes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum" by Benjamin Rosenbaum, "Bright Morning" by Jeffrey Ford, and "You Have Never Been Here" by M. Rickert. Rickert's story, the only original in the anthology, was perhaps the most successful at inducing that feeling of strangeness. When I first read it, I found it utterly captivating, yet almost completely perplexing; once I finished, I immediately turned back to the first page and started reading it again. I've now read it three times, and I'm still not entirely sure what's going on there, but I sure enjoyed the experience of reading it (and rereading it).

But whether you're interested in the boundaries of slipstream or not, Feeling Very Strange is a terrific collection of stories that any genre reader should enjoy. As with any compilation of short fiction—whether it be a magazine, anthology, or single-author collection—there are a few stories that may fail to fit one's own personal taste, but, for this reader, this book had far more hits than misses.


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