From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson

A review by Rich Horton

Husband and wife Peter Dickinson and Robin McKinley have each had remarkable writing careers as individuals. This is the second book (after Water, Putnam 2002) they have written together, collaborating on the book but not the individual stories. The two longer stories in Fire are by McKinley, the three shorter ones by Dickinson. All are Young Adult fantasies, about “fire spirits” of various types, such as a salamander, a phoenix, and a dragon.

The book is enjoyable, its varied nature enhancing the reading pleasure. Dickinson opens with “Phoenix”, in which a young girl fascinated by nature encounters a boy of a similar age in a private preserve. She soon gathers that the preserve belongs to the boy’s family, and she gains his approval and explores it with him. Eventually she learns the real story of the place, which is quite strange. It involves, of course, a phoenix and rebirth, as well as an unusual and endearing love story. Dickinson’s other two stories aren’t quite as effective. “Fireworm” is set in a primitive community menaced by the titular creature, which burns its way into their cave. The hero, an outcast due to his illegitimate birth, is gifted in a dream with the strange path he must follow to vanquish the fireworm. All interesting, but the story never really connects. “Salamander Man” is about another outcast, a boy who is the slave of a woman selling magical objects. She is a fairly benevolent owner, but cannot resist when a magician insists on buying the boy. Magicians have a bad reputation, but this one has a different fate in mind for the boy. Again, interesting, but we are told too much, not shown. Thetale might have worked better at twice the length.

McKinley’s stories are more character-oriented, perhaps more traditionally YA. “Hellhound” tells of Miri, a girl just out of high school, who loves horses and never wants to leave her parents’ farm and riding stable. She loves dogs too, but only on graduation can she persuade her mother to let her adopt one, and she ends up with a very strange dog indeed. The title gives it away, but it is, we learn, a good hellhound. This is revealed engagingly when Miri’s brother and his girlfriend run into trouble at a haunted graveyard on their property…The fantastical element here, while real, is secondary to a set of delightful characters.

The best story is the longest, “First Flight”. Ern is the third son of a carpenter, who wants his sons to fit traditional roles. That means the eldest will be a dragonrider, the second a spiritspeaker, and the third a wizard. The story turns on Ern’s character—he is convinced he’s a clumsy bumbler, and he is half-ashamed that his forte seems to be healing, for some reason a disparaged art. He also loves animals and has made a pet of a sort of dog/dragon hybrid. And then he must accompany his oldest brother on his sibling’s first dragon flight, which exposes him (and us) to the wonders of the majestic dragons, and their curious method of flying (something like spacewarps). The shape of the entire story is clear from the start, but it’s perfectly executed and Ern is such a well portrayed first-person protagonist, that the novella is enthralling.

Fire is a wonderful blending of talents of two writers who have already given us some of the best YA fantasy of the past few decades.

Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits
Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
$19.99 | hc | 297 pages
ISBN: 978-0-399-25289-1
October 2009

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