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The Fire Dragon: Book Three of The Dragon Mage
Katharine Kerr
Harper Collins Voyager, 353 pages
Bantam Spectra, 432 pages

The Fire Dragon

Paul Youll
The Fire Dragon
Katharine Kerr
Katharine Kerr is the author of the popular Deverry series of fantasy novels which started with Daggerspell, and continued with Darkspell, The Bristling Wood, The Dragon Revenant, and several others. Her Westlands series includes A Time of Exile and A Time of Omens. She is also the author of the SF novel Polar City Blues and the editor of the World Fantasy Award nominated anthology, The Shimmering Door.

Katharine Kerr Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Black Raven
SF Site Review: The Red Wyvern
Sample Chapters
Katharine Kerr Tribute Page
Katharine Kerr Tribute Page

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

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Katharine Kerr's ongoing Deverry cycle -- The Fire Dragon is but the eleventh book -- is without doubt one of the better, more intelligently written high fantasy series currently in progress, and also one of the most ignored and undervalued.  With less talented or imaginative writers like Feist, Goodkind, Eddings and Brooks gaining bestseller status for their modest opuses, it seems a shame that fantasy audiences, at least in America, have chosen to overlook this more original and inventive work.  Perhaps it is because the publisher here never really promotionally got behind the series, or that this more complicated tale, with its multiple, concurrent story-threads spread over a span of several hundred years, eludes the average reader's attention.  The author has certainly refrained for the most part from drawing upon the flashier, more romanticized and overworked conventions and heroics populating much of fantasy fiction.  Here you'll find no characters with over-blown powers, or beauty so overwrought as to make grown men weep.  No femme fatales in red leather body suits or warriors capering about as half-disguised samurai.  Cultural borrowings are not baldly daubed onto a medieval architecture, mercenaries aren't mimicking G.I. Joe, and the story is not simply a quest by any other name set within a new (or already well familiar) landscape. 

This is not to say that the Deverry books have in some way transcended what had gone before -- hardly.  But the author has created, within the traditions of high fantasy, a world and system of magic, as well as a cast of characters, more mature, complex and individual than the norm.  Celtic in cultural derivation, Kerr has nonetheless blended an obvious study of traditions and folklore into a world view and custom more detailed, original and integrated within the more ordinary elements of the story than a simple retelling of myth or lore, the largely modern and partly romanticized appropriations of the Goddess found in Bradley, or the pseudo-historical reinventions of Llywelyn (This observation should not necessarily be inferred as a criticism of these authors' works, but merely as a differentiation between their use of Celtic influences and Kerr's).  There is an earthiness to Kerr's approach, a grounding of the Celtic into day-to-day existence without as much of the mythic or exaggerated trappings normally associated with the practice of magic or the incorporation of a mythos.  Not that magic does not exist, but in the degree to which the author has incorporated its detail into the more commonplace and ordinary experiences of her characters, she has, to an extent, demystified it, lending its practice a certain veracity or verisimilitude to the reality of the world she has invented.  Magic in part has come to appear mundane, yet without losing any sense of marvel -- a neat trick, which only a few have successfully pulled off.

The realism with which Kerr has invested her world is also reflected in her characters.  They are not mere cutouts of heroic or demonic proportions, but men and women whose qualities have slowly developed throughout the series, as well as in the use of interwoven tales that follow each character through various incarnations based upon a transmigration of souls, a recurring cycle of lives bound together by past events and tragedies, but going beyond a mere reinvention of the Wheel.  Many of Kerr's figures are fatally flawed, yet rarely portrayed in a manner that eliminates all sympathy or understanding.  Her characterizations are not solely bound to the plot or action, but in part used to explore the human psyche in all its aspects, portraying people at once capable not only of baser instincts, but of compassion and nobler motivations as well.  "Heroes" at various moments, under the pressures of circumstance or the jealousies of human relationships, can betray as well as aid, and self-interest is often conflicted.  Even those who commit murder or incest are portrayed in a manner that prevents absolute, or at the very least, easy judgment, every character, regardless of their potential cowardice or malice treated with an underlying glimpse of human nature never singular nor entirely one-sided.  And while elves, dwarves and other magical entities populate this series, their roles, history and personalities bear only a remote resemblance to Tolkien or the usual borrowings from faerie, for the most part largely recontextualized and redrawn along lines that depict them in ways different than what has gone before, and that, even now, continues to be so banally reiterated elsewhere.

Starting somewhat unevenly in 1986 with Daggerspell, Kerr has built upon her strengths as both a writer and storyteller to create what the Chicago Sun-Times once hailed as "...by a wide margin the best Celtic fantasy around."  Within this context, the quality of the series has not diminished over the years, but only improved.  Though not every work of the series is as successful as others, the overall claim of the Sun-Times continues to remain valid, with The Fire Dragon representing one of the best works in the saga.  Elevating the tale begun in the preceding two books (the author has chosen, for reasons not always clear, to divide her ongoing work into quartets, the first four framed as Deverry, the second Tales of the Westlands, with the final chapters entitled Dragon Mage), The Fire Dragon significantly impels the earlier books' unfolding narratives forward, many of the plot threads established in the previous Red Wyvern and Black Dragon coming to fruition in tragic as well as not always anticipated ways, which leaves the reader waiting expectantly for the conclusion to come. Perhaps at no time has the author's prose seemed so sure of itself, both in terms of the plotting as well as her characterizations.  The scholarship of folklore and cultures so evident in the earlier books continues to play a role here.  And only Robin Hobb and George R.R. Martin have succeeded as well in incorporating the often anthropomorphically fraught and overworked character of a dragon.

In this outing, ancient hatreds and betrayals that have accumulated over past lives, ever shadowing their participants and descendents, begin to take form far from the land and feudal politics that gave them birth.  Invisible yet binding chains of circumstance and actions, many only barely remembered, begin to draw old enemies together along the shores of Cerr Cawnen, threatening to overtake a culture that long ago fled from the wars and servitude that spawned the approaching conflict.  Other enmities, even older, are also becoming engaged, and those marked and haunted by the past appear poised to reenact a bitter history.

If there is a complaint, it is in the author's failure to once again provide the  comprehensive character list, glossary, and table of incarnations necessary to follow a sprawling and complicated saga that to date has spanned almost two decades.  Further, what little has been provided has, at times, contained inaccuracies; most annoying when trying to reconstruct events from previous books that have lapsed from memory between intervening publications.  While perhaps viewed as a relatively minor complaint, this omission nonetheless points to a carelessness on the part of the author or the publisher at odds with the quality and care that has been lavished elsewhere in terms of the narrative.

One has every expectation, and hope, that the author has already amply displayed the talent required to bring this series to a long-awaited and satisfying conclusion (though one can think of other talented writers who have been unable to bring their work to a successful closure).  For a time, the opportunity for American readers to even see the series' end seemed in doubt, as the American publisher, Bantam, had announced, following The Fire Dragon, that it was abandoning the work unfinished due to indifferent sales.  The British publisher, though, has continued its support for the saga, as audiences and critics in England appear to have embraced this work more enthusiastically than readers in the author's own country.  Fortunately, for those not wishing to incur the expense of ordering the final book from England, DAW has recently agreed to publish the concluding novel, The Gold Falcon, in the United States sometime in 2002, along with a subsequent novel, The Black Stone, that will further follow the adventures of Haen Maen. 

The author states that Black Stone will be the last book concerning Deverry.  While some of us, based upon prior experience, might wink and nod knowingly at this claim, all good things must and probably should come to an end.  It's just unfortunate that so many of you, in the meantime, appear to have missed even the opportunity.

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.


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