I’ve been sitting by the fireplace in the Green Man Pub reading the wonderful stories in this collection while listening to the Neverending Session play around with a reel called ‘The Winter Queen’ that was written by Will Harmon, a friend of Zina Lee, in honour of Jane Yolen. I can’t help but think, though, that McKillip herself would be worthy of a reel, or perhaps a spritely jig, for all the great fiction she has written over the past quarter century! Checking our past issues, I’d found we’ve reviewed a fair amount of her work, with Mike Stiles in his review of her Song for the Basilisk novel providing the best comment about her writing as reflected in what I experienced reading the stories in Harrowing the Dragon:
McKillip, a World Fantasy Award winner, writes with a sparse style that evokes great magic with the barest of words. She possesses a fine knowledge of funky musical instruments and the endearing qualities of musicians. Her power is that of place; it defines and motivates her characters. Song for the Basilisk explores how the expression of that power is shaped by the predilections and history of those who wield it. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in the Celtic or Nordic musical traditions. It’s also for readers who like to see the prince get what’s coming to him when he messes with the bards.
I must admit that I was not particularly a fan of hers ’til I started reading these tales, but I am now! Oh, I picked up a novel or two by her, but they didn’t really capture me fancy ‘tall so I put them aside in favour of other reading material as I’m wont to do when, as there always is around here, more reading material than there is possibly time to read all of it.
However, I am a fancier of the short story format, as it’s perfect for those times when you don’t have but a few minutes to spare for reading something pleasurable. Which is why I claimed this when it came in for review. So I sat down in a comfy chair by the fireplace here in the Pub on an evening when I sincerely intended to read naught but one story. Just one story and then I’d get back to playing a few tunes for the Kitchen staff here as they went about preparing the eventide meal. Sure … What instead happened is that I was still reading late into night, long after most of the Neverending Session musicians had left and there were but a few fiddlers, a piper, and a crwth player cheerfully seeing which bleak Welsh tune they could inflict on the Pub patrons at that very late hour.
Do any of you remember The Storyteller series? It was where a storyteller – one played by John Hurt, one by Michael Gambon – introduced and narrated tales of greedy princes, misguided giants, and changelings, to name but a little of what stories were told in that wonderful series. Well, Harrowing the Dragon has tales every bit as good as The Storyteller series. Never before has McKillip had published a collection of short stories – full of dragons, witches (in multiple tales), bards (like witches, they come up often in this collection), kings, and walking houses with a very bad temper (‘Baba Yaga and the Sorcerer’s Son’, originally published in Dragons & Dreams which was edited by Jane Yolen, Martin Greenberg & Charles Waugh).
McKillip’s language is that of the storyteller standing before her audience on a night where the only light is from a fire long since banked. Not a single story here could not be told orally. My favourite? ‘Baba Yaga and the Sorcerer’s Son’, ‘Lady of Skulls’, and ‘Ash, Wood, Fire’ are all very good, but ‘A Matter of Music,’ with its look at bards who recreate epics using only instruments other than voice is my favourite as it’s truly stunning in its language. Over twenty years old at this point – and the second oldest piece here after ‘The Harrowing of the Dragon of Boarsbreath’ – its descriptions of the bard playing literally took me breath away! I’ve have never read such amazing descriptions of a musician playing anywhere else.
I will, no doubt, return to these tales again. In the meantime, I’m off to visit the Library here to see which McKillip novels are there to be read, as I’m quite interested to see if her novels are as stunning as these tales are!