The Taborin Scale by Lucius Shepard
I have long thought that the ideal length for a work of science fiction or fantasy is the novella length, defined by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as 17,500 to 40,000 words. This gives an author sufficient space to create a world, describe it and the characters that inhabit it, and spin a plot. It’s a short enough work for the reader to consume in a single sitting, allowing her to immerse herself in the author’s world without any such rude interruptions as the need to go to work. For this particular reader, it’s lovely to be able to give myself up entirely to a writer’s imagination; the colors, the scents, the textures of the world become completely real to me.
Lucius Shepard writes ravishing novellas. The Taborin Scale, set in the same universe as the novella The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter and the short story “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” gives us yet another perspective on the massive Dragon Griaule. It is the story of George Taborin, a numismatist who purchases a glass jar containing coins, buttons and other odds and ends when on his annual trip to Teocinte to sport in the brothels. He finds a dark, leathery chip in the jar, and begins polishing it, uncovering a blue-green color. A prostitute sees what he’s doing and identifies the chip as a dragon scale from a young dragon — definitely not the Dragon Griaule, she says, and it has to be centuries old. She wants the chip, so George strikes a deal: two weeks during which she will meet his needs (“spelled out… in clinical detail”), and the chip is hers.
Sylvia and George get along well enough, but of course there are times when they’re not in bed, and George spends some of it polishing the dragon scale. At one point, George strokes the scale and the world around him changes: suddenly he and Sylvia are on a plain with tall grasses and stands of trees, far from the city of their hotel room. The landscape fades after a moment and they’re back. Sylvia, though frightened, wants him to try it again, and he obliges. This time the landscape doesn’t fade, and they’re stranded in the new world that seems to be their own, only much younger.
Before long, it becomes clear that they have been brought here by the Dragon Griaule, though the reasons for the dragon’s actions are never made clear, even after a climax that is as unexpected as it is exciting. There is always more to this dragon than any reader might have thought. Shepard explores his meaning, religiously, culturally and historically; indeed, the book is presented as a sort of history in itself, with infrequent footnotes that explain certain details in a much more clinical manner that the tone of the story, which is much more artistically told.
The novella is published by Subterranean Press, which often publishes novellas in beautiful editions that justify the high prices it charges. This book, for instance, is signed by Shepard and, opposite the title page, bears a picture of the Dragon Griaule by J.K. Potter (who also did the lovely cover) that just might haunt your dreams. It’s a small detail, but I was particularly taken by the endpapers, which are textured to resemble the dragon’s skin and scales. I cannot imagine replacing this sort of book with the bare text on an e-reader; it stands as an argument for physical books all by itself. My only complaint is a familiar one when it comes to Subterranean: there are far too many typographical errors for a book on which such love has been lavished.
Despite the typographical errors, if I were rich, I’d be collecting Subterranean Press books by the boatload. They are lovely in every way. The Taborin Scale is as beautiful to hold and touch as it is to read. If you are already a Shepard fan, you’ll want to add this book to your collection. If you’re not, think about investing in another Subterranean book, The Best of Lucius Shepard, which opens with “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule.” Shepard is worth savoring.
The Dragon Griaule — (1984-2012) Publisher: More than twenty-five years ago, Lucius Shepard introduced us to a remarkable fictional world, a world separated from our own ‘by the thinnest margin of possibility.’ There, in the mythical Carbonales Valley, Shepard found the setting for ‘The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,’ the classic account of an artist — Meric Cattanay — and his decades long effort to paint — and kill — a dormant, not quite dead dragon measuring 6,000 feet from end to end. The story was nominated for multiple awards and is now recognized as one of its author’s signature accomplishments. Over the years, Shepard has revisited this world in a number of brilliant, independent narratives that have illuminated the Dragon’s story from a variety of perspectives. This loosely connected series reached a dramatic crossroads in the astonishing novella, ‘The Taborin Scale’. The Dragon Griaule now gathers all of these hard to find stories into a single generous volume. The capstone of the book — and a particular treat for Shepard fans — is ‘The Skull,’ a new 40,000 word novel that advances the story in unexpected ways, connecting the ongoing saga of an ancient and fabulous beast with the political realities of Central America in the 21st century. Augmented by a group of engaging, highly informative story notes, The Dragon Griaule is an indispensable volume, the work of a master stylist with apowerful — and always unpredictable — imagination.
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