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Archive for December, 2015

It’s my fourth blogging anniversary, and WordPress has kindly provided their annual report of my year in blogging. I always sit through the whole thing a couple of times, enjoying how those little fireworks soar up and burst.

Here are a few notable factoids from 2015.

Followers: on Dec. 31, 2014, I had 129 followers. Today I have 169. That’s an increase of 40 members — pretty fast growth for my humble blog. Welcome, all of you, and special thanks to those who have stuck around these four years.

Comments: My most talkative followers are Nila White, M. Q. Allen, David Lee Summers, Laura Palmer, and Craig Boyack. Thanks for helping keep Wyrmflight a lively place. And, of course, I’d love to hear from the other 164 of you.

Posts: the most popular post of 2015 in terms of raw visits was a guest post by Craig Boyack in February. Check it out here. This is not to be confused with my personal favorite post of 2015, Just For Fun 35, which was the most popular in terms of reader comments.

Tags: The tags that led the most viewers to Wyrmflight are “Dragons,” “Fantasy Author,” “Fantasy Fiction,” and “Dragon Folklore.” No surprises there.

On this day before the day before New Year’s Day, I have to thank all of you for following, commenting, and otherwise being my friends. My life as a writer would be awfully boring without you!

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This is the second book of a trilogy, but there’s no “slumping middle” here. I enjoyed how this volume carries the story forward by bringing in new viewpoints, instead of going over and over the same set of characters. I savored learning more about the Emmas, a group of golems (magical clones, essentially) all grown from a woman named Emma, who have their own resistance network.

Ten years pass between California Bones and Pacific Fire. This allows several characters to mature enough to be fully active in the plot. Sam Blackland, Daniel’s adopted son and a golem made from the dreaded Hierarch, is most important of these. It also allows more consequences of Daniel Blackland’s powers to unfold. Other characters who were believed dead return here, and there’s continued reflection on how the powerful prey upon the weak.

This is, again, a heist novel set in an alt-history Los Angeles. Daniel learns that some of his old enemies have banded together and are trying to create their own dragon. Pacific drakes are one of the largest and most terrible species. They are also extinct. However, the consortium has gathered enough fossil bones from individual dragons to assemble a complete skeleton. They plan to use Sam’s life force to reanimate the beast.

Nobody really wants to know what would happen with such evil people controlling an unstoppable dragon. The only certainty is that a lot of innocents will die. It’s a twisty plot with a lot of heart, despite the occasional creepy cannibalistic references. Recommended for ages 12 and up.

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This week has seen a major milestone for the SpaceX’s Dragon space program, which suffered a major setback in June of this year. SpaceX staff pulled off one of their most difficult technical challenges when they piloted their Falcon 9 rocket through a launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida, placed several small satellites into orbit, and then returned it to a perfect, upright landing back at Cape Canaveral.

It’s not only a great recovery for SpaceX after the loss of a previous Falcon 9 during launch, but a milestone in space travel. One of the big obstacles to regular space flight has been that so much of the support hardware — complicated, expensive equipment — has been deployed for only a single use. This feat promises that both rockets and crew modules can be returned to Earth and re-used.

Now that the rocket has successfully landed, it will be inspected to see how much wear and tear the mission caused. Once repaired, it can be used again and again.

Here’s some footage of the recent mission, in case you aren’t tired of seeing it yet.

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Before I leave the topic of basilisks, I have to mention a group of real-life basilisks from Central America. Basilisk lizards are smallish members of the Iguana family, measuring around 2-1/2 feet in length and with some 70% of that being the tail. Each has a crest on its head, and a sail-like fin running down the back.

There are three species. The Common Basilisk lives along the Pacific Ocean side of the isthmus and is mostly brown with black or white markings for camouflage. The Green Basilisk lives along the Gulf of Mexico and, as the name implies, it has green scales with camouflage markings. Red-Headed Basilisks stick to the southernmost part of the range. Their scales are green on the sides, reddish-brown on the upper surfaces.

These denizens of Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Colombia and Southern Mexico live mostly in tropical rain forests, especially near rivers and streams. They mostly live in the treetops, eating fruit, leaves, insects and small mammals. At the same time, lots of other animals would like to prey on them, so the basilisks have a great defense mechanism. If they can’t deceive enemies by hiding among the leaves, they simply drop to the water — and start running!

Yes, these are the famous Jesus Christ Lizards. With specially adapted toes, and enough momentum, they can travel as far as 15 feet over the top of the water. They sink as soon as they slow down, but that’s okay. Basilisks are very good swimmers. If the predator is especially determined, the basilisk can dive to the bottom and hang out for as long as an hour. Of course, there’s a different set of predators down there, so treetops are still their favorite places to be.

Starting in the 1980s, all three species of Basilisk were taken for the pet trade. Fortunately, they breed easily in captivity. A pet population has been established in the United States and the wild lizards are no longer hunted as much. In some parts of Florida, these lizards have established an invasive population after pets escaped or were released.

Now isn’t that just like a dragon? Wherever they go, they take over!

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Throughout Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent books, there are frequent mentions of an important book. A Natural History of Dragons, by Sir Richard Edgeworth, is a fictitious tome read by Isabella Camherst while a child. As the only scientific study of dragons in its time, it propelled Our Heroine into her early fascination with dragons.

A signal feature of this book is its list of Identifying Criteria, which are meant to separate dragons from other sorts of beasts or birds. Isabella frequently refers to the Identifying Criteria in her memoirs, but alas — I can’t find an actual list of what those criteria are.

Still, the very idea of Identifying Criteria is so interesting that I’ve attempted to tease them out. Most of my list is based on Brennan’s books, and part is based on universal dragon lore. Although this isn’t Edgeworth’s own list of defining characteristics, I hope I’ve come pretty close.

6) Extraordinary breath. This is frequently mentioned in the books. Every true dragon has some sort of breath weapon, from flame to noxious fumes to jets of water.

5) Rapid decomposition. Brennan doesn’t explain why, but every type of dragon crumbles into ash upon death. A major plot running through the series begins when a scientist discovers a method to preserve dragon bones. As a naturalist, Isabella wants to study these bones. Others just want to make weapons with them.

4) Flight. Functional wings are key, along with other anatomical features such as a flexible tail, crest or frill on the head and neck, and four limbs. (Land-dwelling dragons have paws, while water-dwellers have flippers.) In an early chapter, Isabella encounters a wolf-drake, which is considered less than a true dragon because its wings are too small to carry it aloft.

3) Great size. Another early dragon encounter is with sparklings, which are no more than a few inches long. Because they are so small, sparklings have traditionally been classified as insects rather than dragons.

2) Reptilian. Scaly skin is implied to be a dragon characteristic, even in amphibious varieties.

1) ??? Here’s where I get stuck. Dragons have several more common descriptors. They are predatory, for instance, and often seem to have human or nearly-human intelligence. However, both of these could also apply to any number of other creatures. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) are all predators. Whales and wolves seem to have a high order of intelligence. None of these would be confused with a dragon.

At this point, I’ll open it up to you, my friends in blog-land. What do you think the final Identifying Criteria for a dragon could be?

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Voyage of the Basilisk is the third in Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series, in which the main character, Isabella Camherst, is a venturesome lady scientist who travels the world to study dragons. The tone and manners of a Victorian/Steampunk adventure remains consistent with previous novels. There’s a new layer of alternate history, since the ship, Basilisk, has a clear parallel to the Beagle, upon which Charles Darwin traveled and gained his famous understanding of evolution.

I have to say I’m growing less fond of Isabella, who keeps doing outrageous things and then expresses dismay that Society views her as disreputable. For instance, she has a close friendship with a black scientist who shares part of the journey with her. She also enters a sham marriage with a Hawai’ian native woman because of their social prejudices against women who wear trousers. Throughout, Isabella makes a big point about how she respects native cultures and doesn’t want to break their taboos, yet she can never restrain her enthusiasm enough to actually not break them.

Ultimately, I was left discontent. Perhaps it’s that Brennan’s dragons, although still interesting, aren’t as much the focus of the story this time. People who really get into Steampunk stories will probably enjoy this one, too.

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The basilisk legend was passed down into Medieval times, by which point it was described not as a snake but as a wingless dragon. Its venom no longer soaked the ground behind it, but could be breathed out as a vapor or even transmitted by the power of its malevolent glare.

During this time, however, the basilisk became confused with a similar beast, the cockatrice, which also could kill with a stare. This was another dragonlike monster, with a rooster’s head, chest, wings and feet but the long scaly tail of a serpent. According to the stories, basilisks hatched out of toad or snake eggs that had been brooded by a rooster. Cockatrices were born from an egg laid by a rooster and brooded by a toad or snake. In some tales, the star Sirius had to be rising or the moon had to be full when the cockatrice hatched. Still, it’s easy to see how they could be mixed up. (Wink, nudge.)

Basilisks were larger, about the size of a cow, while cockatrices were only a little bigger than ordinary chickens. Initially, they both were said to kill with a look. Later tales substituted paralysis, which made hunting easier for the monster in question. Accounts also vary whether the killing force was inevitable, or if the human could escape as long as he didn’t meet the monster’s gaze. This is somewhat reminiscent of another lethal legend, Medusa, who was so ugly that all who saw her were turned to stone.

While the basilisk had a weasel as its greatest enemy, the cockatrice could be killed by the crowing of a rooster. Travelers who passed through lands where cockatrices were rumored to dwell would take roosters with them as they went. The only other thing that could kill a basilisk or cockatrice was a mirror — its own baleful reflection would do it in! Again, this hearkens back to Medusa, who was defeated by seeing herself in a mirror.

Believe it or not, as Europe moved into the Renaissance, there was a market for basilisk parts! Alchemists believed that powdered basilisk blood could turn copper into gold. The ashes were said to convert silver into gold. Who knows what substances were passed off as basilisk blood in such a lucrative market?

Basilisks have continued to be well known and frequently mentioned in legends and stories. They’re mentioned in the Bible, in The Canterbury Tales, in Shakespeare’s plays and in poems by Browning, Shelley and Swift. A basilisk is the main threat in the second Harry Potter book. Surely this deadly monster will remain a magical threat for many centuries to come.

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