I'd never read anything by Peter Dickinson before, but Robin McKinley is one of my favorite authors. So, when I spotted Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits by the two of them at the library, I had to pick it up. Three of the five stories blew me away, enough that even though the other two were less interesting, I want a copy of this book.
Hellhound by McKinley is a prime example of what happens when you flip a preconception. You don't think of hellhounds as being cute, companiable creatures. Certainly not pitiable. But that's what Miri sees when she spots the chestnut-red dog with the sad scarlet eyes huddled in its cage at the pound, many times rejected by prospective owners. He responds well to her overtures. Looking for a dog who would be good at the family stable for protection and could be trusted to behave around the horses, cats, and the students who came came for horse riding lessons, she declares that he is just the dog she wants.
"It's only that he's a hellhound," Miri said. "That's why he has those eyes. I'll take him."
She is closer to the truth than she realizes. Flame settles into his new home as Miri's trusted companion. And on a eerie storm-struck day, the hellhound proves both his heritage and his allegiance to Miri and her family. This story gave me tingles. Its coolness factor helped make up for the less interesting story that opened the book.
Salamander Man was the only one of Dickinson's that really gripped me. Tib is a slave boy with no knowledge of his parents. His primary duty is to help with Aunt Ellida's stall, watching for sneak-thieves and trouble-makers, something he is very good at doing. He can also spot a magician from a long way off, from the way that crowds never quite touched them and always moved aside without even being aware of the effect. But he never expected one to take an interest in him. He certainly never expected what happened after the magician bought him.
Part of what is neat with this story, besides the engaging style, is the surprise at the end. I thought I understood what was going on and found out I was wrong in a very cool way.
First Flight by McKinley is more of a novelette or maybe a novella, taking the latter half of the book by itself. This story is the reason it has taken so long to post this review. I could go read this story again right now.
In just the first couple pages you already get a sense of the culture Ern grew up in. Most important is the fact that no one wants to associate with a known healer. It's a loss of face to be treated by one, that even unavoidable injuries are considered a mark of shame, illnesses as a sign of weakness. If you must have a healer's help, you go in secret. Few people will even risk saying "good day" to a known healer for fear of wrong conclusions being drawn. Because of this attitude, most wizards refuse to have anything to do with healing, despite its necessity.
Ern's greatest desire is to a healer anyway.
Ralas is not like most wizards, in more ways than one. She has no problem with doing the occasional healing and doesn't mind Ern hanging around. He uses the herb lore he has picked up from her to help his neighbors, making use of the fact that he's small and looks younger than his age to convince them to take his offerings. Looking harmless is his motto, something easy to achieve with Sippy, the foogit he saved as a pup, bounding next to him. Foogits are considered to be a bit of a joke, because they look a little like small dragons, only with hair and a buffoonish manner.
Ern's brother is about to take his First Flight, a big milestone in dragonriding training, where for the first time, he will command a dragon to enter the Firespace, a travel shortcut only dragons can use. Dag comes home on break fretting about it. Not the ordinary jitters of a first timer, but true concern. For the dragon he has been assigned is missing one eye, lost in combat when she took a spear meant for her rider. Without that third eye, she cannot enter the Firespace. And it will mean a special kind of humiliation for her. Dag fears what will happen and is angry that she is being forced into that situation. Ralas tells them that Dag should take Ern and Sippy with him when he returns to the Academy. Though they don't understand what good that will do, they trust her and follow the advice.
Sometimes the simple desire to help someone who needs it can change more around you than you know. Even when you don't know what to do or how to do it.
Like The Shifter, the world of First Flight has a unique approach to healing. Maybe not as drastic, but how many places do you know of where healing yields a loss of face? While I was reading this story, I was reminded of a great article Juliette Wade wrote in April on how healing can play a role in world-building. I'd say this would make another great example.
I'm also an admitted dragon fan. Not the dragons-are-evil/vile-beast (unless in the same story there are also good ones, like Dragonlance), but any story where dragons are treated with dignity. Whether they have beast-mentality (Dragon Jousters series) or human-like intelligence (Pern series), I love dragons. This story is every bit as fantastic as I would expect from McKinley. The dragons are wondrous/glorious, the characters are charming, and the world is vivid. (Oh yes, I cried. Sniff.)
You should check out Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits, even if you skip the other two stories. These three make it worthwhile. Fabulous! Now I'm off to read them again before I have to take the book back to the library.