Sunday, 18 November 2012

Tales of the Nun and Dragon - Book Review

“Come, rest your weary bones, draw a flagon and hark to the tales of Nuns & Dragons, of bravery and steadfastness in the face of mighty and implacable foes. Settle down and indulge yourself in wild flights of fancy brought to life by your fellow travellers.”

Tales of the Nun and Dragon, edited by Adele Wearing, is an anthology of short stories and one poem by a range of different fantasy and horror writers, some well-known, some new names. There are a lot of stories inside, all with their own unique interpretation of the nun and dragon theme. Nuns, dragons, nuns verses dragons, nuns who are dragons, nun on dragon action (yep, that happens), pubs called The Nun and Dragon... not to mention lizardmen, knights, magic, time-travel, the end of the world, rituals, flying ships, dragonflies, baby dragons, undead dragons, and all manner of strange beasts. After reading these stories you’ll never think of nuns or dragons in the same way again.

Each author puts a different spin on the subject matter. For some, dragons are the traditional monsters of medieval stories. In others they are the satanic beasts of Christian thought. In some stories they are misunderstood or sympathetic characters, wise old creatures of a time long gone, or else magical, dangerous beings from another realm. Some of the stories are set in a pure fantasy land; others take place in our past, a few in the present, and even one in the future. Nuns appear as religious women of different faiths, some real, some imagined, or as dedicated warrior women. The stories themselves range in feel from horror to adventure, from romantic fantasy to slower, more thoughtful tales, and many incorporate interesting twists. There’s something for everyone, and no two stories are the same, which is surprising given the very specific theme of the anthology.

The stories are written well, and, while I preferred some to others, there are no bad ones. It’s an enjoyable and incredibly fun anthology. Here are ten of my favourite stories (which isn’t even half the collection!):
The Ballad of Gilrain, by Sarah Cawkwell – This seemed like it would be a very traditional, standard fantasy story at first, but the humour and the characters, and the relationship between Gilrain and Therin, really set it apart. An unexpected turn towards the end leaves the heroic tale with a slightly unusual ending. This is a great story to start the collection on.

Fire Exit, by Mhairi Simpson – I loved this story of Tereth and her family’s unique problem. Running an inn on a wychride, where magic is prevalent and literally anything can happen, might have seemed like a good idea, but in reality it means trying to prevent the little dragons that constantly pop into existence from burning down your home and livelihood in the night. This is a fun story, and the little dragonlings are adorable! This is one of those short stories that feels like it could easily be a whole novel.

Saint George and Saint Giles, by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Another story that felt like a standard knight verses dragon tale, then twisted it beautifully. This is a clever story with a great ending.

Fruit of the Forbidden, by Jasper Bark – This story works with the Christian concept of the dragon as the devil, and adds the idea of temptation and forbidden fruit to the mix. The story has a slightly seductive and almost eerie feel to it, and it questions ideas of what is good and evil, as well as what is holy.

Lex Draconis, by Simon Bestwick – You will never think of nuns and dragons in the same way again. A strange, thoughtful, and quite sad story, with a very unexpected ending!

Journey to Blackfire Deep, by Colin F. Barnes – Dragons, lizardmen and rat-men! Airships! Bar fights and gun fights! Ancient ruins! This is a crazy story packed full of fantasy adventure elements, with a slight Steampunk and D&D feel, and a good sprinkling of the Sword and Sorcery genre atmosphere. It’s fast paced and fun.

Martyr, by Andrew Reid – Another different spin on the dragon idea – undead dragon! – giving the story an element of horror. The reason for the dragon’s attack, and the real monster underneath the castle, are revealed at the end, when Lord Perren and Sister Gilda must battle a supernatural evil. A well told story with a good end.

The Killing of Sister George, by Pat Kelleher – This is very different from the other stories in the collection, with a less obvious fantasy element. It’s an effective and quite disturbing story, with a good ending that is open to interpretation.

The Hazel and the Hawthorn, by V. C. Linde – This is the only poem in the collection and it is a very good one. It tells of the aftermath of a battle, but is perhaps really about guilt and responsibility. It has a sad, wistful feel, looking at how a few people’s feelings could devastate an entire kingdom. I read a King Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot theme in it, but it is left open to fit other interpretations too.

The Last Hunt, by Karen Davies – I loved this one. It appears to be setting up a typical fantasy dragon-hunt story, but soon twists it, turning the tables satisfyingly on a main character who deserves what he gets, and introducing probably the best nun of the collection. This has a very enjoyable ending (I sort of guessed the twist, but then it double twisted on me), and was my favourite story of the book!

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