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Archive for March, 2013

Q: Do dragons like goblins?

A: I am not putting THAT in my mouth!

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This is the starter of a classic dragon series from 1982, Dragons of the Sea. Interesting that this was around the same time McCaffrey’s Pern series really took off, and Jane Yolen wrote her Pit Dragon series (see my post from last week). It was a dragon age, indeed.

Here we have Asian dragons in the purely mythic Chinese style. Shimmer is an exiled dragon princess whose home was destroyed when the wicked sorceress Civet stole the sea and shrank it into the form of a blue bead. However, as it develops, not all the drama is Civet’s fault. Shimmer, who seems trapped in perpetual adolescence, had her own troubles with her noble family before the ghost girl came along.

Hardened by her centuries of exile, Shimmer is resistant to the friendship of a runaway servant boy, Thorn. Yet his irrepressible nature and faithfulness win her over. Together they fight their way through many trials in their quest to get the bead away from Civet and restore Shimmer’s ocean home.

It’s a fantastic landscape of Asian myth, with appearances by other great folkloric figures such as the flamboyantly flawed hero Monkey. Like dragons and monkeys, these books spring from a bygone era. There’s a focus on character rather than action here, and the battles are described in a less visceral way than contemporary work would do. To me, this is actually a big recommendation.

Laurence Yep has had a long career and won many awards, including the presigious Newberry Honor. His bibliography includes quite a few works with dragons in them. If you like Asian folklore or any kind of dragon, you’ll like these books.

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I’ve mentioned the books of Patricia C. Wrede before, as I covered her Enchanted Forest quartet last year. I’m happy to say Wrede has been keeping busy with a couple of fine new Middle Grade fantasy series. Regency Magic is a three book series written in collaboration with Carol Stevermer, and Frontier Magic is the latest.

Frontier Magic is an alternate history/fantasy where Columbia (North America) was inhabited by an interesting menagerie of Ice Age and fantastical creatures. There is a United States, but its expansion westward is greatly inhibited by said creatures. In fact, only the magical Great Barrier over the Mammoth (Mississippi) River keeps the wildlife from overrunning and destroying human civilization. It doesn’t appear that there are any Native Americans, due to the hungry fauna, so the issue of Indian Wars can be avoided.

The main character is Eff, short for Francis Rothmer. Her brother is the fabled seventh son of a seventh son, but Eff is a dreaded thirteenth child. As much as her twin brother is the bearer of luck and astounding magic, Eff is the harbinger of disaster for everyone around her. Or so her bigoted relatives believe. To protect their kids (Eff from prejudice and Lan from being idolized) and also to advance Mr. Rothmer’s career, the whole family picks up and moves west.

Eff grows up at a college for magicians, an important profession when magic is crucial to daily life and the preservation of humanity. We see her come of age and learn not to fear her own magic. There are tons of fun details in the setting, but the tone throughout is more somber and less overtly humorous. The huge family of thirteen kids is handled deftly, and they’re sure to keep Eff busy in the following volumes.

The only drawback? Not enough dragons! Wrede does include dragons as part of the dangerous wildlife. Steam dragons, which seem to be long and gray, rather like Asian dragons, but are hard to see because they’re so hot that they constantly create steam around themselves. It’s a fun creation, and I wished the steam dragons had spent more time on stage.

If you insist on roller-coaster pacing and things blowing up, this book is not for you. For those who like the idea of Laura Ingalls Wilder meeting L. Frank Baum, you’re in for a treat. The next two books are Across the Great Barrier and The Far West. I plan to read them both.

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This is the first in a tween series, The Pit Dragon Chronicles, published in 1982 and reissued regularly since. It’s SF rather than fantasy — one of those books that explains dragons as creatures native to alien worlds, and the human characters are descended from Earth colonists. The dragons have been tamed (at least mostly) and are forced to fight while onlookers make bets.

In some ways this book is rather like Dragonriders of Pern, Anne McCaffrey’s better known series that began in the same era. In both series, I find there’s a certain flatness, as the great mystery of dragons is neatly explained. Also, it does irk me that the dragons are made to fight for no reason. Really, if you could have your own dragon, the only thing you can think of to do is make it fight other dragons? Honestly! Where is the intergalactic ASPCA when you need them?

Don’t get me wrong. Yolen does a lot of things right here. Her humble protagonist, Jakkin, has a big dream: to own his own dragon. Although an indentured servant, he strikes boldly to make his dream real by stealing a dragon egg and raising it in secret. He makes friends with a young nurse in training who helps him out of scrapes, and ironically wins the approval of the man he stole the egg from. Sarkkhan himself started out with a pair of purloined eggs, so he understands Jakkin taking the initiative.

As for the dragon, she remains nameless for most of the book but eventually is christened Heart’s Blood. Jakkin shares an empathic link with his beast and senses her emotions in bursts of color rather than words. Nevertheless, Heart’s Blood has a strong personality, and there are some fun scenes with the awkward hatchling growing up to be a powerful fighter.

The other books in the Pit Dragon series are Heart’s Blood, A Sending of Dragons, and Dragon’s Heart. Like most tween books, the fighting is handled in a non-visceral way and the romance is only hinted at. Suitable for kids 10 and up.

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I mentioned in my last post that Viking dragon boats came from a family of longboats with great cultural and religious importance. Unfortunately, there is little specific information on Viking religous practices beyond the sagas of Norse mythology. They don’t seem to have had a specific class of priests, or buildings like temples, where such information would have been recorded and preserved.

We do know that Vikings used longboats as part of their burial rites. In fact, most of the best preserved Viking boats archaeologists know of were found in burial mounds, or barrows. This implies there was some belief in “sailing to the afterlife,” to put it crudely.

Well, what about those longboats, then? The family began sometime before 800 AD and included ships in several main categories. The smallest of the clan was the Faering, a vessel with just two sets of oars. One can imagine fishermen and short-distance travelers using such a craft.

The workhorse of the family was the Knorr. These were cargo vessels that crossed open seas, as opposed to the sleek raiders which hugged the coasts. They measured perhaps 54 feet long and 15 feet at the widest (the beam). The crew was 20-30 people. The primary means of propulsion was with a sail, while oars were used for maneuvering in harbors and such. Knorr were used for major expeditions such as the colonization of Greenland.

Karve were another type of cargo ship, slightly larger than Knorr. The beam was 17 feet, so they must have been close to 60 feet in length. The Karve was better for running along coasts than the Knorr. About 900 AD, warriors began to use them for fast raids all around the North Sea.

Viking warriors returned from these raids with fame and fortune, and that created something of a ship-building “arms race.” Successful raiders became chiefs, with many men following their banner. Famous chiefs wanted more impressive ships to hold their larger war bands. They also began to attach ornaments, like the iconic dragon figureheads. In some cases these were so striking that Viking chiefs were requested to take off the figureheads so they didn’t scare away friendly spirits in their home waters.

From 900 AD to the end of the 1200s, Viking longboats grew longer and sleeker. The zenith of the form was the Drekar, literally a “dragon ship.” Numerous historic/folkloric accounts describe ships that seem too big to be real, but archaologists have excavated several specimens in the 90- to 100-foot range.

The largest Drekar ever found was at Skuldelev, Denmark, where a number of sunken Viking ships were excavated in the 1960s. Tree ring analysis indicated they had been built between 1000 and 1070 AD, and some of the wood came from as far away as Dublin, Ireland.

The Big One dates from around 1025 AD, the height of Viking prowess. It measures 113 feet long, with room for 72 oars, and could have held up to 100 men. Yet it rode only 3 feet above the water. It must have been a terrible sight to see coming toward your shores.

For 300 years, the Drekar and its smaller kin were the dominant navy in Europe. These speedy ships allowed their Viking owners to spread and settle all around the North Sea. They were true sea dragons!

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From China, my voyage takes me around the world to the Northern Europe, where another dragon boat held enormous cultural significance. This is the Viking longboat. Actually, there was a whole family of longboats in a range of sizes. The largest of these was known as a drekar, or Dragon.

The Vikings were a widespread people who lived around the North Sea. They originated in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland, where the land is rugged and mountainous. Because of this, travel over land was much more difficult than travel by sea. No surprise, then, that the Vikings became expert mariners.

Today we think of Vikings as marauding warriors, and they certainly were, but they were also intrepid explorers and merchants. Vikings traded as far away as Constantinople (a.k.a. Istanbul, Turkey) and also visited Russia and North Africa. They explored and settled in coastal areas of Scotland, France, Greenland, and even as far away as Newfoundland. All of this was possible because of their amazing skill as shipwrights.

Viking ships were build with a technique called clinker building, where the boards overlapped and were riveted together, rather than being nailed to a framework. They were double-keeled, so that they could reverse course if necessary — to dodge icebergs, for instance. Initially they were powered by rowing, although later ships also had a single square sail.

These ships had a shallow draft, meaning they didn’t need deep water to float. Viking ships could easily sail up rivers. The boards used to build longboats were relatively thin, which meant the whole ship was light enough to carry over land for short distances. No wonder they were feared!

Next time, I’ll talk a bit about the kinds of Viking longboats and their religious significance.

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I posted last time about the legendary Chinese writer and anti-corruption cursader, Qu Yuan, who devoted his career to the Kingdom of Chu and was banished after the ruler listened to rumors spread by his rivals. Chu was eventually conquered by Qin Kingdom as Qin expanded and eventually became the realm we know as China.

In grief, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River. Local people were distraught when they learned of his suicide. They rushed to the site and rowed their boats up and down the river, banging on drums and stirring the water with their oars to keep away evil spirits and fish who might have eaten Qu’s body. They also threw rice into the river, hoping the drowned poet would not get hungry.

Qu’s ghost (or some say he had been resurrected) appeared to his loyal friends. He told them a dragon was intercepting the rice and asked that these offerings be wrapped in silken cloth before being tossed into the river.

Several aspects of the modern Dragon Boat Festival spring from this legend. The boats are carved and decorated with elaborate and colorful dragon heads. The eyes are painted with blood to bring them the life. A traditional food at the festival is zongzi, sticky rice wrapped in leaves. The boats are strictly human-powered. Rowing teams are kept together by the beat of a drum.

Initially, the festival also held an element of human sacrifice. Since Qu Yuan had given his life in protest, the racing crews were also offering their lives. If any individual, or even an entire crew, fell into the water, this was believed to be a sign that the river dragon wanted them as a sacrifice. Onlookers were forbidden to help.

In modern times, Duan Wu is one of three traditional festivals sanctioned by the Chinese government. Dragon boat racing has spread world-wide as Chinese migrants have spread out from their homeland. The sport is especially popular in countries with large Chinese populations. Click here to see an official Taiwanese tourism video about dragon boat racing.

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