The Dragon Quintet
Edited by Marvin Kaye
Featuring Orson Scott Card, Mercedes Lackey, Tanith Lee, Elizabeth Moon, and Michael Swanwick
Tor Fantasy, 2006
[ Challenge # 50: A book you started last year and haven’t yet finished. ]
I bought this book a number of years ago because I love dragons, but I never got around to reading it. Last year, 2021, I slated it for my annual Author’s Water Cooler Reading Challenge and started it while on a camping trip to the North Cascades. But, I never finished it that year. This year, I put it back on the list, and finally finished it on another camping trip at the very noisy Deception Pass State Park, in a campsite that was way too close to the highway and the Tomcat jets of the Whidbey Island Naval Air Base. Usually, when a book takes this long to finish, it means it isn’t very good.
The anthology consisted of five “short novels” by acclaimed voices in fantasy fiction, though to me they felt more novelette-sized. IMO most would have been OK with a shorter treatment. Two of the stories were annoying, one disappointing, one all right but nothing special compared to the author’s other work, and one I enjoyed. So it was a mixed bag. The theme was, of course, a dragon or dragons were the central focus, but each author treated it differently.
The most straightforward of them, and the one I liked the best, was Mercedes Lackey’s “Joust” which was about dragon-riding warriors in a desert kingdom reminiscent of ancient Egypt. Vetch, a downtrodden slave boy, is taken by one of them to be his apprentice dragon-keeper, and the story is about how Vetch adjusts to his new surroundings and what happens when he steals a dragon egg and raises it as his own. The worldbuilding was excellently done for such a short piece, as was Vetch’s helpless anger from his father’s murder that he can’t let go of even when his situation improves. Being a Lackey story, it was schmaltzy and repetitive in places, but enjoyable to read in spite of that. It inspired a later series of novels, but I can take Lackey only in small doses and will probably pass on them. (When I first read this story I swore it was by Andre Norton, and only when I started to write this did I realize the author was different.)
Michael Swanwick’s “King Dragon” handled the same subject matter, a relationship between a dragon and a boy, but his worldbuilding made absolutely no sense. Somehow the folksy Discworld realm of village fantasy mated with the world of high technology, resulting in sentient metal dragons with jet engines and cockpits, along with elves and spells and curses. One of these dragon jets crash lands in a rural area and forces the villagers to serve it, kidnapping a local teenage boy to be its mouthpiece. This was one of the annoying stories because, as I said, the world made no freakin’ sense, and it actually hurt my opinion of Swanwick whom I understood to be a fine writer.
The other annoying story was Elizabeth Moon’s “Judgment” which, again, had a dragon and a young male protagonist in a rural English village setting, with some witch-hunting thrown in. This story was frustrating because the male protagonist was so stupid and so thick-headed he never saw what was obvious to the reader from Day One. Again, I don’t think I’ll read any of Moon’s other work either.
Orson Scott Card did a much better job with “In the Dragon’s House ” in which he sets up a family mystery in an old house with a model train setup in the attic, decaying electrical wiring, and a matriarch who puts on community theatrical productions in the basement, all of which were way more interesting than the… yes, you called it… young male protagonist and the dragon, who is formed from living electrons. This story ended on an abrupt downbeat note more suited to horror than whimsy, which I had classed the story as; still, up to that point it was a good read, even if it wanted to be start of a longer, more complete tale.
Tanith Lee’s “Love in a Time of Dragons” began as a trope: a dragon slaying knight in some Medieval European never-never land appears at a village inn where he is seduced by one of the wenches, who asks that he take her with him on his journey up the mountain where the dragon lairs. Halfway through, the plot takes an unexpected twist, which is par for the course for a Tanith Lee story (and also, par for the course, one the reader would never see coming) and the rest of the story consists of the heroine’s immersion in the dragons’ world, including some sexual escapades with teeth and tongues, until she loses her sense of humanity. It was interesting, but not among Lee’s best.
(On reflection, it’s odd that the only story with a female protagonist had her having tons of sex with both the knight and the dragon.)