Sunday, January 28, 2007

Dragon Fiction the Wrong Way and the Right Way

Two Dragon Books

“Rhianna” by Michele Hauf and “The Smoke Thief” by Shanna Abe serve as excellent examples of how a dragon book should not be written, and how one should.

I will admit that I picked up Hauf’s “Rhiana” because I’ve always loved the Welsh name “Rhiannon,” even more so once I heard the song by Fleetwood Mac in the 1970s. My dissapointment was immediate, however, when I noticed the main character was a walking stereotype, and that all the other characters were equally two-dimensional. The prose read like something written by a teenager who has read a few too many medieval stories and fairy tales, and the dragons are the only original aspect of the book. Apparently, they require hoards full of gold and jewels because by rubbing against it, they create a layer of dust that sustains them and makes them immortal. Female dragons, or “rampants” are the only dragons who burn humans and their homes, while old, wise male dragons are interested mainly in peace and finding a lifemate. I found that last idea odd in light of the obvious feminist heroine and her constant struggle to be allowed to be a dragon slayer instead of a proper lady who marries, bears children and runs a household.
Rhiana, we learn, is impervious to flame and actually spits fire herself when upset. It becomes evident that she’s the daughter of a dragon/human pairing, but we aren’t treated to the details until the end of the novel. Macarius Fleche, a male dragon slayer, joins up with Rhiana and attempts to bring down the large number of rampant dragons breeding in the salt mines beneath the town. Meanwhile, the town magistrate is using dragon dust to attempt immortality, and having trouble keeping his seemingly “mad” wife from wandering into the dragon caves. Though this book is a “Luna” imprint, and therefore a romance, romance was mainly an impediment to the characters, and not something to be desired.
All the storylines are resolved rapidly in the end, and of course, Fleche and Rhiana agree to a “partnership” as a marriage of equals, which seems as unlikely in the middle ages as dragons mating with humans. I found myself rolling my eyes each time another cliché began to unfold in this novel, and I hoped that the characters would become a bit more original or different as the plot plodded predictably along.

Fortunately, I found a used copy of “The Smoke Thief” and was treated to hours of interesting, original dragon lore and unique characters without a wisp of cliché about them.
The dragons here have been part of a castle in the Carpathian Mountains since the dawn of time. Eventually, humans hew a path up the mountain, and the dragons breed with them to create a new race of being with the power to “turn” from human to smoke to dragon and back again. But the blood thins out over the centuries, and it is becoming harder for the head of the dragon clan to find a mate who is a full-fledged dragon descendant that can ‘turn’ at will.
The ingénue, Clarissa Rue Hawthorne, is a slip of a child who grows up knowing that, as a half breed, she will be reviled or dismissed by her contemporaries. Though she forms a crush on the Marquess of Langford, Christoff, the charismatic head of the clan, she decides to fake her own death and move to London, where she begins a successful career as a jewel thief.
Unfortunately, ten years later a powerful magic diamond is stolen from the clan, and Christoff is sent to London to recover it. While there, he encounters “Rue” and realizes that she is a rare female able to “turn” completely, and therefore his mate. Colorful and fully-realized characters abound, such as the local madam, the street urchin Rue has saved, and other odd 18th century English characters that make the mileau seem all the more realistic. Abe’s prose flows like liquid fire, and her plot is swift and sure. Her characters are flawed, memorable and fascinating, and the historical/magical aspect interwoven so deftly into the novel as to be nearly invisible. Though we know that Christoff and Rue will eventually get together, the amore isn’t done in a clichéd way at all. It flows naturally from the characters instincts, and it reads beautifully. Ms Abe’s rich imagery and tart prose keep the reader hungry for more, long after the book is finished.
If you’re going to read only one dragon book this year, I’d recommend that you choose “The Smoke Thief” and fly far away from “Rhiana.”

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