Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson
Both terrific authors in their own right, Robin McKinley and husband Peter Dickinson team up on Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits to give us five new stories of fantastical worlds. Unfortunately it remains a half-baked collection. Robin McKinley's and Peter Dickinson's Water collection was not perfect but a joy nonetheless, all the stories well crafted and full of interesting surprises. Fire, their latest installment in the projected elementals series, is not as strong. The stories suffer from being under- or over-written, some confusing plot holes, and in some cases a real lack of cohesion.
The first story is “Phoenix” by Peter Dickinson, in which an elderly man finds a phoenix and interesting things happen as a result. The story didn't particularly grip me but I realize this is more of a personal preference, so I will say it is at least well written. It also touches upon some thought-provoking themes of rebirth, hope, and religion.
In “Hellhound” by Robin McKinley, a teen girl who works on her family horse ranch buys a new dog that is more than he seems. This one was also well written and easy to read. The hellhound was lovable, the family dynamic engaging, and the suspense really nail-biting at times. All in all a strong story.
“Fireworm” by Peter Dickinson was a great premise. A young man in a prehistoric setting must fight off a fireworm that consistently steals the tribe's fire. The collection goes downhill from here. It's not the subject matter; I adore prehistoric fiction, such as Maroo of the Winter Caves and Boy of the Painted Cave. The mythos in this story evoked Native American mythology. But I didn't much like that the women, even so early on in history, just sat around not doing or saying much of anything; they existed purely as possessions to the men. Surely every member of a prehistoric clan was important to the tribe's survival, yet here all the women do is cook, sit in the cave and wait for the men to barter them off in marriage. More to the point of the story, I didn’t have a clear sense of why the fireworm was such a danger to the humans. The whole story hinged on the need to kill the creature, but it never came across as a real threat to their survival.
In “Salamander Man” by Peter Dickinson, a young man is sold to an enigmatic new master and the salamanders (mystical fire beings in this story) have a task for him. I was very invested in this story, in the touching relationship between the boy and his former owner, the strong characterizations. But it was much too short. A whole string of events happens, then the salamanders explain some hefty backstory, and just like that, the tale is over. Love is in the offing in the future, but it means nothing because I never spent enough time with these characters or saw much of their world.
In “First Flight” by Robin McKinley, a young man accompanies his elder brother to the dragon-riding Academy when he learns that his brother's first flight (a rite of passage) may not work due to the dragon's injury. This is the longest story in the book at over 120 pages and it certainly lags in places. The world is enticing but haphazardly sketched, the characters largely peripheral. The only character I thoroughly loved was Sippy, the narrator's little pet dragon. The narrator himself has little backbone as well as severe social anxiety, and his deer-in-headlights behaviour does not improve by the end, even when important things are at stake. Much of the really interesting material is told to us via the narrator's rambling style, rendering the tale static and distant. To be fully effective, the story needed either to be fleshed out into a full novel or have all the filler cut and show us the important events in scene. When you feel that any of the characters would have made a better protagonist than the narrator, you know something isn't working for the story.
The first two stories are well written and plotted. Unfortunately there are only five stories; one was over before it started and the remaining two lagged. I hate to be so harsh on this book as I was really looking forward to it. Robin McKinley is one of my favourite authors, and while the only Dickinson I've read so far were his Water stories, I enjoyed those just as much as McKinley's. In this collection, both authors needed to spend more time on their stories. I only hope they manage better in the remaining two books of the elementals series.
This Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits book review was written by Marysia Kosowski
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