Patricia A. McKillip is the author of several wonderful books (my favourites being Alphabet of Thorn and Winter Rose) and is one of the few fantasists in the publishing world that is original. Although her stories may contain typical fantasy elements (dragons, heroes, kingdoms, quests, good versus evil, etc) they are written in such beautiful poetic-prose that the stories transcend the clichés they stem from; reading more as luminous fairytales than hum-drum fantasy. Although the prose is beautiful, it is also an acquired taste. When I was first introduced to her work, I found it rather difficult to adjust to a story that was often hidden under such dense, rich language. Of course, it’s worth it in the end, but for those just starting out on McKillip, perhaps this anthology of short stories is a good starting place.
And for those already well-versed in the magic of McKillip’s writing, a series of stories is an added bonus to add to a collection. McKillip is just as skilled in the creation of short stories as she is in full-length novels, and sometimes a quick-fix of her work is just what a devoted reader needs. Containing fifteen stories (some of which span a few pages, others which are better described as novellas); there’s enough variety amongst them to keep each one fresh and interesting.
In the story that gives the book its title, “Harrowing the Dragon”, a dragon-slayer comes to the island of Hoarsbreath in order to harrow the dragon from its shores. He is joined by a native of the island, a young woman who isn’t too sure if she wants the dragon to go. “A Matter of Music” concerns Cresce Dami, a bard who has freshly graduated from her school with ambitions of playing in Daghian. Attempting to negotiate her way through the rules and etiquette of playing music in a high court, Cresce becomes involved in the political machinations of the countries surrounding her. These stories are by far the longest in the entire book, and are typical of McKillip’s wonderful world-building and imagery.
McKillip borrows from other fairytales too: in “Baba Yaga and the Sorcerer’s Son”, she uses the Russian folklore of Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged house to imagine a meeting between the witch and a young wizard who needs her help, whilst the Hans Christian Anderson tale of “The Snow Queen” imagines a contemporary setting in which Kay cheats on his devoted wife Gerda with a beautiful stranger… but Gerda — whose entire life has revolved around Kay — finds a hidden strength of her own to survive his betrayal. “The Lion and the Lark” is an amalgamation of several fairytales, (most obviously Beauty and the Beast, though keep your eyes open for the others) which makes it a little predictable, though ends with an image of amazing imaginary force. Finally, in the story that ends the book, “Toad” is an explanatory back-story of “The Frog Prince”, explaining why the prince would agree to marry such a spoilt princess. McKillip looks deep into the imagery at work throughout the fairytale, using the golden ball and the frog’s intrusion into the princess’s life as a metaphor for her burgeoning maturity. I’ll never look at the Frog Prince the same way again.
As well as building on other sources, McKillip creates fairytales all her own. In “A Troll and Two Roses” she weaves the tale of an ugly troll who becomes enraptured by a beautiful rose and its connection to two enchanted lovers, while in “The Fellowship of the Dragon” five bards go out in search of the Queen’s favourite harper, only to fall prey to the traps and snares strewn throughout the wood they must traverse. “Lady of the Skulls” (one of my favourites) involves a mysterious tower in the desert, to which many questing knights travel, attracted by the promise that should they take the most precious thing that it holds, they will be allowed to keep it. The catch? If they choose wrongly, they die. Then there’s “The Stranger”, which concerns a man who forms dragons out of the colors in nature and his own imagination, and the weaver-woman who tries to prevent him from the destruction he wreaks. In “Voyage into the Heart”, we are privy to a unicorn hunt in which the bait (a young virgin naturally) is unaware of her part to play in its capture.
There are two other stories that don’t seem to fit into any category: “The Witches of Junket”, which involves three prodigal grand-daughters returning to their hometown to help destroy an escaping evil, and my personal favourite “Starcrossed”, which concerns the investigation into the deaths of Romeo and Juliet by a soldier who is disillusioned with love. It’s a fantastic concept, and McKillip pulls it off brilliantly.
Lastly there are two little stories (which come across more like experimental writing exercises) “Ash, Wood, Fire” and “Transmutations”, the former concerning the dynamics of a medieval kitchen, the latter exploring what goes on in an alchemical laboratory. They are probably the weakest stories of the anthology, but they are both reasonably short (and with other such exemplary stories on display, it doesn’t really bear complaining about). Besides, thirteen out of fifteen ain’t bad.
Altogether, this is a great collection and a must for any McKillip (not to mention K. Y. Craft, who always provides beautiful cover art) fan.