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Archive for September, 2015

Q: What do you call a dragon who falls behind the others?

A: Laggin’ dragon.

And, I’ll be taking part in SpoYo, the Spokane Youth Book Festival on October 10th. It says they connect young people with authors “to nurture love of books, promote literacy, and inspire students to see themselves as creators.” This is a new event for me, and I look forward to going.

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Novik, the author best known for her Temeraire series, takes a break with a different sort of dragon. Uprooted is another alternate history, this one set in Eastern Europe during the Renaissance. The two main kingdoms are clearly analogues to Poland and Russia. There are also persistent references to an ancient witch named Jaga, who seems quite similar to the folk character Baba Yaga.

This is an excellent book, full of foreboding. I raced through it, desperate to know what would happen. It has a great Brothers Grimm feeling, along with the thriller’s pacing. There’s a brave heroine whose growing power doesn’t fit the mold of how magic should be done. There’s a best friend who faces the worst and emerges more than human. There’s some fairly scathing comment about how politics work, and how one wounded heart can destroy everything a society tries to build. And there’s the Dragon.

Sarkan is the greatest wizard in the world, a hateful enigma who holds himself apart from ordinary people — except for one young woman he snatches away every tenth year. In this world, wizards and witches stop aging when their powers arise. Time slowly takes all their loved ones. This reality has made the Dragon bitter, sarcastic, impatient and demanding. As the tale unfolds, you can see that he is also lonely, noble, working relentlessly to protect the very people he chooses not to engage with.

Agnieska, the heroine, challenges everything about the Dragon. His way of magic doesn’t work for her, and hers is nonsense to him. Her love of family and friendship cracks his self-imposed isolation. Throughout Uprooted, these two struggle toward an understanding and a partnership that, in the end, Sarkan rejects. He leaves Agnieska and finds a different way to isolate himself.

I’ve heard many comparisons to “Beauty and the Beast,” which I don’t think truly fit this tale. I admire Novik for not making Sarkan fall in love and “get better” in the obvious, romantic way. Only in the last few pages does it seem that Agnieska may have changed him at all.

Some sources say this book stands alone, and others say it’s the start of a series. Whichever the case may be, it’s very much worth reading.

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Q: What do you call a cart pulled by dragons?

A: A dragon wagon.

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Q: What do you call a mug that’s big enough for a dragon to drink out of?

A: A dragon flagon.

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Haven’t you always wondered? Take this survey and find out!

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Not too long ago, I posted the legend of the Lambton Wyrm, a terrifying dragon who lived in the River Wear. But did you know there are real water-monsters in other rivers of the world?

In fact, two species of giant catfish dwell in deep waters of Africa and the Middle East. The best known of these is the Vundu, a.k.a. Heterobranchus longifilis. This water monster lurks in rivers and lakes from Egypt to the Congo to Zambia. It can grow up to five feet long, with shades of olive and brown on its back and a paler belly. Like many of its kindred, it has prominent barbels, which resemble a crazy mustache. Vundu can breathe water as well as air and are capable of “walking” on land for a few hours.

Like all large fish, the Vundu will eat most anything it can fit in its mouth. Young fish start with insects and bottom creatures, and progress to water birds and small mammals. They also feed on carrion and human garbage that finds its way into their waters. These fish are most active at night, but that hasn’t stopped them developing a killer’s reputation.

Not that Vundu intentionally hunt humans, but when the two clash, it often goes worse for the human. A typical encounter is when a fisherman unknowingly hooks a Vundu. This is especially true if the fisherman doesn’t know what he has and tries to force the fish to the surface. Such a big, strong animal is quite capable of dragging a man off his boat. If the human becomes tangled in the line, he may drown.

Some say these giants have even taken babies from the river banks! They seem able to home in on chemicals like soap, which are associated with humans, and come over to see what they can scrounge. It’s hard to say if this story is true or just represents a parent’s worst fear. However, some fishermen do use soap as a bait, knowing it will attract scavengers like the Vundu.

Although it might not seem like much of a dragon, these fish are true river monsters.

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In the 1300s, a samurai’s daughter named Tokoyo went to search for her exiled father in the Oki Islands of Japan.

She stopped to rest on a beach, but was soon awakened by the sound of weeping nearby. She looked for the reason and saw two people dressed in white atop a nearby rock. A priest clapped his hands and prayed, “Namu Amida Butsu” (a Buddhist prayer, literally “think of Buddha” but more poetically “you will be remembered”). Meanwhile a beautiful maiden sobbed with despair. The priest was about to push the girl into the sea when Tokoyo rushed up and stopped him.

She demanded why this was happening, and the priest replied with sorrow that a dragon named Yofune-Nushi lived in a cave deep beneath this cove. The wicked creature had been terrorizing the people of the island for centuries, raising storms at sea and destroying their fishing fleet. It demanded the sacrifice of a virgin woman every spring. The villagers couldn’t live without fishing, and so they had to give in.

Tokoyo replied that her heart was already broken by losing her father, so she offered to be the sacrifice and let the younger girl go home. The priest was very surprised, but the maiden gratefully accepted. They changed clothes, so that Tokoyo wore the white robe of sacrifice. Holding a small dagger in her teeth, she leapt into the sea.

Moonlight illuminated the clear water of the cove, so she was able to swim down past fish and seaweed. She came to a grotto where gleaming pearls and awabi (abalone) shells surrounded a wooden statue. Tokoyo recognized that this represented Takatoki Hojo, the same man who had banished her father. She was furious, and wanted to destroy the statue, but she realized it would be easier to do this if she took it up to the shore.

Before she could lay hands on the statue, a horribie monster lunged at her. This was the dreaded Yofune-Nushi — a twenty-foot-long serpent with clawed legs, fiery eyes, and phosphorescent scales. The dragon assumed she was his annual sacrifice and approached without fear. But as he closed in, Tokoyo slipped aside and struck at his right eye with her dagger. Yofune-Nushi reeled with shock and pain. He tried to flee to his lair, but in turning he exposed his neck. Tokoyo’s blade struck true, and that was the end of the evil sea dragon.

Half-conscious, the brave samurai’s daughter swam back up with the statue and the body of the dragon. The priest and the maiden were very surprised to see her. By the blood in the water, they thought she must have perished. The priest ran to help her out of the waves, while the maiden brought help from her home village. They celebrated until dawn that their village had been saved by the valiant heroine, Tokoyo.

A few days later, the priest reported to his lord, Tameyoshi, that Yofune-Nushi had been slain. In turn, Tameyoshi reported to Hojo that a statue with his likeness had been pulled out of the sea. It turned out that Hojo had been very ill with a disease no physician could understand, but just a few days ago he had miraculously recovered. Now, with the priest’s report, it was evident that he had not been ill but cursed. Since Tokoyo had unknowingly broken the spell, Hojo showed his gratitude by releasing her father from prison. The two of them returned to their home and lived happily for many years.

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