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Archive for October, 2013

Goblin Quest, by Jim C. Hines, is home to one of the most impressive dragons of modern fiction: Straum. If you notice similarity to another famous dragon, it’s no coincidence. Hines writes funny fantasies that skewer popular stereotypes. His debut trilogy poked lots of fun at D&D and the whole dungeon-delving, treasure-grabbing mythos that goes along with it.

The star of the show is Jig, a little blue goblin who gets captured by a group of typical adventurers. You know… the warrior prince, the mad wizard, the dwarf cleric and the elfin thief. Instead of killing him — although there’s continual debate on that point — they opt to enlist hapless Jig as their native guide. Fortunately for them, Jig is smarter than the average goblin. In fact, in some ways, he’s smarter than the other four put together.

There are laughs and thrills, and some pointed questions along the way. Could an underground labyrinth actually function as an ecosystem? What gives those adventurers the right to come in, kill the “monsters” and steal their treasure? Is it really that easy to shoot an arrow into a giant monster’s eye? I’m sure you’ll all spot favorites from your D&D days.

But the main event is Straum, a black dragon who’s been trapped underground for more than 5,000 years. The greatest wizard in history stuck him down here to guard the Rod of Creation, and only the Rod can set him free… but Straum himself cannot use it. He has to lure in the right group of adventurers if he ever wants to be free.

This is a terrific book with an obvious love for what it lampoons. The sword fights are not handled in a grisly way, making it a safe read for all ages, though younger kids will need an adult’s help with vocabulary. Goblin Quest is highly recommended.

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Last time I wrote about the Eight Immortals, a group of Taoist sorcerers from Chinese mythology. This group traveled ancient China defeating monsters and helping the needy. Eventually their good deeds came to the attention of Xi Wangmu (Queen Mother of the West) an ancient deity who considerably predates Tao but was incorporated into Tao teaching.

Xi Wangmu was celebrating her birthday with a banquet on Mount Kunlun, a paradise of Chinese foklore. As part of the festivities, she would bestow Peaches of Immortality on the guests. Although the Eight Immortals had already achieved immortality on their own, this was a great honor and they set out at once to attend the banquet.

Soon they came to the Eastern Sea. The usual mode of transport for divine beings in Chinese myth was to summon a cloud and ride on it, but Lu Tung-pin cried out that they should challenge themselves to cross together, using all their diverse talents. So each of the Eight threw down their personal tools/talismans and transformed them. Chiang Kuo used his paper mule, Li T’ieh-kuai used his iron crutch, and so on. Together they set off across the sea.

Unknown to them, the son of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea was watching from the deeps. He saw Lan Ts’ai-ho, the jester/minstrel, crossing the sea with his/her flute. (Lan is sometimes depicted as a woman, sometimes as a teenaged boy, and sometimes as hermaphrodite. Cultural concepts can be difficult to translate.) The Dragon King’s son was overcome by greed. He seized Lan T’sai-ho and his/her flute, and swept them down to his father’s kingdom.

The stories don’t say if the son was infatuated with Lan or desired the flute’s power. In either case, the remaining Immortals were outraged. They descended into the sea and attacked the Eastern Dragon King’s palace. It was a long war, full of twists and turns. Several sources I’ve read say the details are recounted in many songs and stories, but I couldn’t find any. And here I thought you could find absolutely anything on the Internet!

In the end, the Eastern Dragon King’s forces were defeated. Lan was freed, the flute recovered, and the re-united Eight Immortals continued on their way to the banquet.

As with every such legend, there are variations. The principal one is that the Immortals had too much wine and just decided to explore the deep sea. Lan accidentally dropped his flute, which was found by the Dragon King’s sons, and the tale went on from there.

Two main metaphors come to us from the legend of the Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea. One is the shrimp and crabs who serve as the Dragon King’s army. Today they are symbols of any bumbling military force. More important is that the Eight Immortals combine their skills and work together for a common goal.

In modern China, and wherever in the world the Chinese have migrated, the Eight Immortals remain one of the most beloved myths. They appear in books and manga, in art of all sorts, in video games, and much more. Because they are a diverse group (old and young, male and female, noble and peasant, rich and poor) they offer the essential Taoist message that anyone can aspire to wisdom.

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The Eight Immortals, or Pa Hsien, are one of the most popular and important legends in Chinese mythology. They spring from the practice of Tao, a philosophy/religion founded by the great mystic Lao Tsu or Laozi sometime around 400 AD. Tao is based upon study and contemplation of nature. Surprisingly from the patriarchal Chinese, this philosophy holds that anyone who practices meditation and keeps a simple life can develop magical powers.

With the right mentoring, they can even become immortal. Indeed, several of the Immortals trained others who would join their elite band. Each had a special tool, a focus for his or her powers, which could overthrown evil or bring new life. Often these had some connection to their mortal roots.

The Eight Immortals comprise four balanced sets: youth and age, male and female, wealth and poverty, nobility and humility. Li T’ieh-kuai carried an iron crutch and could travel as an astral spirit. Chung-li Ch’uan bore a feather fan. Lan Ts’ai-ho, variously depicted as woman, youth, or hermaphrodite, was the minstrel of the group. She carried a musical instrument. Chang Kuo had a paper mule that he could fold up and put in his pocket. The beautiful woman, Ho Hsien Ku, carried a lotus blossom and played a reed organ. Lu Tung-pin was a master swordsman. His enchanted blade was called Chan-yao Kuai, or Devil-Slaying Sabre. Han Hsiang Tzu foretold the future in poetry. Ts’ao Kuo-chiu was related to the imperial family of his day, and carried with him a jade tablet that would admit him to court.

Together or separately, the Eight Immortals roamed the ancient Chinese world, exorcising demons, healing the sick, and performing other good works. In time, their were recognized by the Empress of Heaven. Next time, I’ll tell you how that brought them into conflict with a clan of dragons.

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Dragonbreath is a fun fantasy series for young readers, combining comic art with a fast-paced story. Sort of like Captain Underpants if the boys were a dragon and iguana.

Danny Dragonbreath is the only dragon kid in his school. He gets bullied because nobody believes in the magical world he comes from. He gets pressure from his parents to finally breathe fire. And he gets an F on his paper about ocean life. His teacher gives him one more day to re-write the assignment.

Rather than hit the library and do some research, as advised by his friend, Wendell the ignana, Danny persuades his cousin, Eddie the Sea Serpent, to take them on a tour of the Sargasso Sea. After some thrills and chills, and with a few science facts thrown in, they return to land better equipped to deal with bullies and homework. Even fire-breathing might be within Danny’s grasp.

The author doesn’t specify how old Danny and Wendell are, but the series seems aimed at the younger middle-grade spectrum. Perhaps 3rd or 4th graders. There’s a lot here for kids to like, especially reluctant readers, with the text regularly broken up by cartoon segments.

As an adult reader, I found the characters thin, especially the parents, and the plot predictable. On the other hand, I’m not the target audience. This Dragonbreath series really is a lot like Captain Underpants in that thinking too much spoils the fun.

I’d recommend this series for early readers, especially boys who struggle to find books they like. Dragonbreath is up to nine volumes now, so there’s plenty to keep kids coming back.

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I’m sure some of you have seen the incredible images of a genuine sea monster found in Southern California earlier this week. A snorkeler encountered the 18-foot-long carcass of a Giant Oarfish and brought it ashore. Fifteen or sixteen other people had to help get it out of the water. Here’s an image from Sky News HD.

giantoarfish

According to this article in the L.A. Times, oarfish are known to inhabit the sea off California, but are thought to stick to much deeper waters. They can grow up to 15 meters or 45 feet long. That’s as big as some whales!

You know what’s funny about this? If a fantasy writer were to create a 45-foot-long fish in a magical world, we would be considered ridiculous. Too silly even for fantasy. And yet, this thing exists in the real world.

Nature sure is amazing.

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It’s been hard to focus on dragons this week. Too much is going on in our nation’s capital (at least for those of us in the US) with our government at a stand-still. It’s maddening, no matter which side of the aisle you sit on. So, just for grins, I’m going to speculate on what kind of government it would be if DRAGONS ran it.

It could be a plutocracy (that is, rule by a wealthy few). After all, we know dragons love their hoards. They should enjoy having taxing authority.

It could be a geniocracy (rule by the smartest) or meritocracy (rule by those who score highest on exams) since at least some dragons of legend are highly intelligent.

It could be an oligarchy (rule by a minority of families and those connected to them). This is similar to aristocracy (rule by noble familes) except in an oligarchy you don’t have to be born into the ruling class. Most legends don’t describe a large number of dragons, but with their size, flight and breath weapons, they would certainly be able to dominate smaller races like humans, elves, etc.

Come to that, dragons could well govern by kratocracy (rule of the strongest). Dragon elections would be gladiatorial, with spectacular contests of flame or poison. If you recall Masters of Air & Fire, my podcast from 2011, this is similar to what the wyrms had in that story. They battled for territory, with the loser being driven away rather than killed.

Well, friends, what do you think? If DC stood for Dragon Country, would they rule by tooth and claw or the size of their hoards?

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Q: What is a dragon’s favorite kind of restaurant?

A: Barbecue!

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