Firedrake by Richard A. Knaak
|Author:||Richard A. Knaak|
The land is ruled by the Dragon Kings. The icy north, the land of the Ice Dragon. The south, the city of Irillian by the sea, is ruled by the Blue Dragon. The Black Dragon rules in Lochavar, the land of the grey mists. The wasted lands are ruled by the Brown Dragon. The Red Dragon rules Hell Plains and above them all is the Gold Dragon, the new emperor.
Below them, the drakes. The dukes of the land who carry out the whims of their kings. Only one city remains in human, almost, hands. This city houses the Library, a mystical resource that contains all the knowledge in the world and beyond, if only you can understand it. Penacles, the city once ruled by the Purple Dragon and home to the Library, is the hands (claws) of the Gryphon. The dragons will do anything to take it back.
Nathan Bedlam, the greatest sorcerer to ever live, died battling the Purple Dragon. However, in his death he destroyed a dragon king and for the first time gave the remaining dragon kings pause. If a single sorcerer could kill their greatest then what might others be capable of? In the uneasy peace that follows, the Dragons rule still but warily.
In terms of that mystical aspect of fantasy literature that we call ‘worldbuilding’, where we have become as gods who create world after world in the imagination of our readers, the Dragonrealm should be acknowledged a master, a shifu, a sensei. Published first in 1989, there are definite hints of time passing, the world has aged. In this era of modern fantasy there are aspects of the story and world that might be considered cliché. But that misses the point – this is one of those stories that established the tropes that other writers now battle to avoid or to twist into new shapes.
Think of it like Oogway, the turtle martial arts master in Kung Fu Panda. He lived for centuries by being so damned good at what he did (yes, I spent several enjoyable minutes* researching Kung Fu Panda). He teaches Shifu, who teaches Tai Lung, who tries to make Kung Fu his own and twists it to his own ends. In the end, it is the panda who honours Oogway’s teachings and emerges victorious. Those respectful of the past’s teachings succeed. Those who don’t…don’t.
There are other notable characters in Firedrake, some of whom go on to have their stories told in later novels. The magician known as Shade, and multitude of other names, is a fantastic invention. Living forever, he dies often. But on each death he is resurrected as the mirror image of his last life. One existence he seeks to do good, in the next he pursues evil ends. Keeping track of his lives, or rather deaths, is vital to the survival of the kingdoms.
Darkhorse, an exuberant demon steed who seems to be made from the very fabric of the universe, is central to the plot and world. Feared by many in the land, yet loyal and self-sacrificing. This demon is misunderstood or, perhaps, understood all too well. The author very cleverly gives this character a tone of joy, of endings, immediacy and timelessness. It is the juxtaposition of these traits that speak of the character beneath.
At the heart of the story is Cabe, our hero, a waiter in a tavern. Cabe begins the story by attempting to avoid the attentions of a customer who wishes nothing more than to beat him soundly to a pulp. Summoned by a dragon wearing a human shape, he begins his travels. During these he discovers a magical sword with a purpose of its own, a lady trapped in a crystal, and fights battles of epic proportions.
You see what I mean about the clichés but, hold on a moment, they work. They really do. You know they are there, you recognise them, can smile at them like an old friend. They fulfil their purpose and destiny. Terry Pratchett once wrote,** “The reason that clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.” This is one of those books, and series, that helped to build fantasy into what it is today.
What you do get is a story that carries you along at pace. A story that builds the word around you by osmosis not info dumping. A story that you’ll start at two in the afternoon and finish at two in the morning without realising you have skipped dinner.*** I read this book, and others in the series, when they first came out – a long time ago now. I would scour the import shelves of my local Waterstones for the next one. You are lucky, just pop onto the website of your preferred vendor or to your local bookshop (support the little guys and girls) and order it. To add to your already considerable luck, you can pick up the first three books in one compendium, Legends of the Dragonrealm, Volume I.
You won’t be disappointed.
*Got side-tracked for an hour or so, if I am being honest.
**He may have written it more than once. I don’t know. But I am using a cliché to write about a cliché – it is all very existential in its logical expression.
***Insert your own cultural reference for food consumed in late afternoon/early evening.