Archive for July, 2012

We’ve just passed July 4th, Independence Day here in America, and it’s turned my mind to a fiery topic: fireworks.

That’s the first gift from China, in case you were wondering. It was Chinese scientists who first discovered how to formulate gunpowder. According to the story, a Chinese chef suffered a kitchen accident that produced a fire with colorful flames. He tried to burn his concoction inside a bamboo tube, and it exploded. Fireworks!

No date is given for this legend, but the earliest written record describing something like gunpowder dates to 142 AD, during the Han Dynasty. By around 300 AD, during the Chin Dynasty, there were written recipes with exact proportions. There are records of public fireworks displays during the T’ang Dynasty, around 700 AD.

Another legend about fireworks says there was a monk, Li Tian, who lived in Liu Yang, Hunan Province. Every year, Liu Yang suffered droughts and floods. Li Tian discovered that the ghost of an evil dragon was haunting the area and causing the bad weather. Li Tian filled a bamboo tube with gunpowder and ignited it. The resulting explosion drove the ghost away.

Firecrackers became a part of many Chinese festivals, as they were believed to scare off evil spirits of all kinds. Li Tian is regarded as a sort of patron saint of fireworks, and Liu Yang is a center of the fireworks industry even in modern times.

Here in the West, we don’t believe in evil spirits, but we do love a good show. Fireworks are a symbol of the ultimate celebration. If gunpowder also developed into a weapon of war with global consequence, it doesn’t erase the dazzling impact of a fireworks display.

Now, you may ask, what’s the other gift from China? Dragon legends, of course! They might not be as tangible, but they are equally enduring — and, one could argue, a lot better for the world than gunpowder.

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I’ve been mulling whether to post comments on Robin Hobb’s Dragon Keeper, first in a new trilogy. My feelings are mixed, and I prefer to keep things positive. This blog is about dragons, however, and ultimately it’s the dragons who won out.

Hobb has put together an interesting life cycle for her dragons, who hatch on land but travel down a river and live for a time as sea serpents. When mature, they travel back up the river and build coccoons, in which they metamorphose and ultimately emerge as dragons. One of the most fascinating aspects is that everything in the dragon’s being contains both memory and great magical power. The dragons eat their coccoons and their dead, not out of greed but to preserve those memories and reserve the power to dragonkind.

The main dragon character here begins as the sea serpent Sisarqua and hatches as the dragon Sintara, called Skymaw by the humans she deems unworthy to know her true name. Alas, the sea serpents were held long at sea by forces of nature and war. They are old and weak when they make their migration. Many die when their imperfect coccoons fail to protect them, and those who do live are stunted. Even Sintara, who is among the strongest, has misformed wings that will never allow her to fly.

Yet, having absorbed the memories within her coccoon (and the bodies of the unfortunates who did not survive metamorphosis) Sintara has a vivid image of the magnificent winged creature she was meant to be. She also inherited the arrogance of those born to rule. The clash between ideal and reality gives this character great pathos. I cheered for Sintara, even when her jaws dripped with blood, and I have great hopes for maturity to temper her vanity.

One of the key questions in this series is power, both personal/relationship power and political power. The humans have their power struggles, the dragons have theirs, and between the two kinds is a separate political struggle for dominance. In ancient times, the mighty dragons were in command. They viewed humans as born to serve. Some humans do willingly serve, and even worship, dragons. Yet because these dragons are not as mighty as their ancestors, some humans want to treat them as livestock and harvest their body parts for magical or financial gain.

How these power struggles work out looks to be the heart of the series, and it could be great reading. Except… The human characters frustrated me greatly. It took them forever to say things that seemed pretty obvious, and the plot held no surprises. Interesting as the ideas are, I’ll have to decide whether I have the patience to continue reading Hobb’s series.

Adult readers may enjoy Dragon Keeper, but I do not recommend it for kids. The sentences are too long, the plot moves too slowly, and there is  significant (though not explicit) reference to a gay love affair that some parents may not approve.

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