When you think of “fantasy,” what is the first word you think of? For many, that word is “dragon.” Throughout the long history of fantastical literature, dragons have been a mainstay of the genre. Millions of words have been written about them, and tons of short stories.
Wouldn’t it be nice if a bunch of them were all collected in one book?
Now they have been. Wings of Fire, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Marianne S. Jablon, is full of dragon stories spanning the years, ranging from the classic “St. Dragon and the George” (Gordon Dickson, 1957) to “The Miracle Aquilina” (Margo Lanagan, 2010). Many of the greats are represented here, from Anne McCaffrey (“Weyr Search”), Roger Zelazny (“The George Business”), and more modern favorites like Naomi Novik.
The collection is excellent, with a broad variety of styles and genres, even a bit of urban fantasy from Charles de Lint ("Berlin"). Readers can see the genesis of classic series such as McCaffrey's "Pern," and get a feel for why the classics truly are classic. I had never read Dickson's story before, though it’s always been brought up in dragon discussions as a great entry in the field. Now that I have read it, I must confirm its status as one of the best of the genre. It's funny, but also poignant.
Another strong story is de Lint's "Berlin," in which a town called "Elfland" appears in the middle of a big city, remaining separate but linked by a place where reality overlaps called "Bordertown." As in many big cities, gangs and drugs abound, and a girl named Berlin is part of a gang that tries to help people. When a high-born from Elfland introduces a potent new drug to the streets, Berlin gets involved and ends up with the entire city turning against her for a crime she didn't commit. Mixed in is an organization of dragon guardians who watch over the city, with an honor code straight out of old Japan.
The story is told in de Lint's trademark lyrical prose, and the plot is simply superb, containing a great blend of ancient and modern, fantasy and reality, and a charming musical theme. The two main protagonists - Berlin and a guardian named Stick - are accomplished musicians when they're not protecting the city. There's some action, but a lot of emotional resonance as well. I've always enjoyed de Lint's work, and this one (written in 1989) is one of his best.
Most short story collections contain a mixture of good and bad stories (or at least stories that don't necessarily impress every reader). Wings of Fire is the same, though Strahan does have years of stories to choose from, so there are fewer weak stories than in other anthologies.
I've never been a big fan of Lucius Shepard's work. Here, his "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" is the story of an ancient dragon whose heart has stopped - but due to a miscast spell many centuries ago, he still lives. His mental energies still terrorize the town, and the elders are willing to pay anybody who will come and kill it. A young painter comes up with the idea of painting the dragon (it doesn't move) to provide a colorful landmark for the countryside along with the added bonus of poisoning the dragon with the paint.
While many others will find that story a great addition to the book, it just didn't grip me like the other stories. The artist, Maric, is more annoying than anything else, even when he does start to develop a conscience. Shepard's prose style isn't among my favorites.
There isn't necessarily a "bad" story in the book; just stories that aren't my cup of tea. One can recognize the craft of a well-told story while still not really liking it that much. This book is full of stories that are on both sides.
Wings of Fire is an excellent anthology that must be read by fans of dragons everywhere. The mixture of old, not-so-old, and recent stories goes down like a cool summer drink in the hot sun.