Revisiting Dragon Goes House-Hunting: Still Hunting

Last April, I reviewed the first volume of Dragon Goes House-Hunting, a manga about a… dragon who… goes house-hunting. It’s a pretty self-explanatory title, what can I say. Basically, it’s a slice-of-life-ish story about Letty the cowardly combat-inefficient dragon looking for a home where he’ll be safe from crusading heroes. When I reviewed the first volume, I gave it points for the art and the humor, but dinged it for lack of plot. (Yes, I know I called it a slice-of-life, but as it turns out, Wikipedia classifies it as shonen, so I’m going to bow to its wisdom and judge it like shonen, which means I want a plot, dang it.)

Anyway, I’m now four volumes deep into House-Hunting. How has it progressed? Am I any more content with it now than I was then?

Ehhhhhh… no.

The series hasn’t really changed beyond its introduction. I’m doing this by memory, as it’s been a bit since I read them, but the basic issues of lacking a solid hook to keep me invested is still there. Letty’s situation has developed a bit over the course of volumes 2 and 3, but volume 4 was devoted to the backstory of Dearia the demon lord realtor, moving the pace of current events forward basically not at all. As it stands, the series is up to six volumes in English and seven in Japanese, but I feel no real drive to go read the others.

And that’s a bad thing. That’s a critical mission failure. And it makes me sad, because I don’t want to hit the series with that. I don’t dislike it, unlike some others I could name. But it’s just not cutting it. The plot hasn’t snared me, the characters haven’t hooked me, and there’s nothing really dragging me back in.

Maybe I’ll pick up the next two volumes anyway. Maybe things will kick into high gear and we’ll end up somewhere better. I mean, the series got an anime adaptation that started this year, so someone likes it more than I do. In theory. I’d still say pick up the first volume if it tickles your fancy, but for now, it’s not a series I can wholeheartedly recommend.

What I can recommend much more heartily is My Hero Academia Vigilantes and Witch Hat Atelier, but, in the words of Alton Brown, “that’s another show.”

To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars: No Dragons, But Plenty Of Fun

Yup, we’re venturing away from dragons this week. To a degree, anyway, because Christopher Paolini clearly has written a dragon or two in his time. But there are none in To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars, or TSIASOS, which is no easier to say but somewhat easier to type. What there are, though, are some solid characters, some good action, and some fun times to be had.

So what’s it about? The initial setup is a xenobiologist named Kira stumbling across an alien remnant on a planet scheduled for colonization, which proceeds to wipe out the rest of her crew. So far, so Alien. Things start to diverge when the discovery of this alien causes other aliens to show up to the party, and the entirety of human space gets thrown into chaos. Kira has to find a way to resolve things and deal with the alien bonded to her, but of course, that proves to be more complicated than it migth seem.

This is Paolini’s first book not set in Alagaesia, his first novel since Inheritance, his first sci-fi book… look, there’s a lot of room for firsts when your entire prior bibliography is contained in one series. He talks at length in the afterword to this book about how the struggles he had producing this book, the skills he had to relearn after spending so many years working on the Inheritance Cycle, and all of the research and stuff that went into it. I definitely appreciate the latter. TSIASOS has some serious Expanse vibes, between the grittiness of the setting and the hard-but-not-always sci-fi elements. It’s a good feel (the Expanse books are awesome, after all) and works well here, but there’s definitely more of the fantastic here than I’ve run into in the first couple books of that series.

(I can also sympathize with Paolini’s difficulties in producing the book from a technical angle, having spent my own extended length of time bashing at a novel to the detriment of the practice of other skills, but that’s another story. Aha.)

The stand-out elements of the book for me were the characters that Kira starts working with as the story progresses and all of their interactions, along with the aforementioned world-building and the dimensions it added to the action. That stuff felt good, both in terms of flow and visuals. Kira herself isn’t bad, and gets a lot better as she develops over the story, but plays best with others, if you know what I mean.

Unfortunately, I think the weakest points of the book for me were the two parts you normally want to be the strongest: the start and the ending. The characters at the start just weren’t interesting enough, and the ending gets weird. I won’t go into spoilers, but it didn’t work for me entirely.

That said, is it worth reading? Have Paolini’s skills gotten better over the years? Do we get any references to the Inheritance Cycle to make long-running fans smile? Are there threads left dangling for sequels to explore? The answer to all four is a resounding yes. Find a copy and enjoy. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting to see what Paolini comes up with next.

Spirited Away: A Japanese Fairytale Dreamscape

First outdoor photo of the year!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been on a bit of an anime kick lately. Somehow, this is seeping out into the rest of the family as well, like some sort of memetic virus, and we’ve been digging into my Studio Ghibli collection lately for some of our family movie nights. One classic that’s been revisited lately was Spirited Away, and as it qualifies as a dragon-related product, and I’ve been reading To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars lately rather than anything draconic, we’re going to talk briefly about that this week.

Discussing Spirited Away is a mildly intimidating prospect. This movie is legendary. One of Ghibli’s most successful works, the first and only anime movie to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Picture (according to Wikipedia, anyway). To criticize it is to invite accusations of heresy, possibly followed by attacks by horrific witches and little sootballs.

But that’s no reason not to talk about it. Especially given how freaking good this movie is, and how relatively accessible it is to people outside of the anime community. More on why I say “relatively” later on.

The plot’s doubtlessly similar to others you’ve seen — a young girl named Chihiro and her parents wander into a spirit-world, and when her parents are cursed, Chihiro has to find a way to survive in that world long enough to save them and make it back home. There’s a certain Alice in Wonderland vibe there. It’s a setup we’ve seen before. But the execution here is way different than any other example I can think of, with a lot of really good elements to it.

If you’ve seen a Ghibli movie before, you know what a treat they are for the eyes. The animation and art style in this movie is awesome. The characters are expressive, the action is good, the spirits and monsters are suitable alien. The sound design is also excellent, as is the soundtrack itself. “The Sixth Station,” and the scene that goes with it, remains one of the most beautifully melancholic pieces of art I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying.

What about dragons, you ask? Yes, there is a dragon, otherwise I’d have to categorize this as a non-dragon review. Yes, he is awesome. I won’t get into it, because you should just watch the movie, and I don’t want to spoil anything.

Now… for the tricky part. The stuff that works less well. This mainly revolves around two points: population and pacing.

Pacing’s the easy one — this movie takes its time. I’m not saying its bloated, mind you. It takes its time in a similar way to how Blade Runner does, putting more emphasis on the Milieu element of the MICE quotient than other movies might. But that invites the same criticism that can be leveled at Blade Runner, and that’s that it can be slow. Not a deal-breaker for me, but maybe more of a problem for some.

The population’s the more tricky one. Spirited Away is packed full of creatures and spirits from Japanese folklore, which creates a weird phenomenon for the Western viewer with a poor understanding of that background (like me). There’s a deeper level to the world-building and the themes present there which we just don’t get. In a way, that’s a detriment to the movie, because it robs us of all that subtext. On the other hand, Chihiro doesn’t seem to have a good idea of what these spirits all are either, so it sort of puts the viewer in her shoes — both are looking at an alien world full of things they just can’t understand.

At the end of the day, though, neither of those factors stop it from being a great movie, and one that’s worth having in your library for those random days when you feel like revisiting it.

House of Dragons: Five-Man Dysfunctional Band

Once again we find ourselves in a situation where I haven’t quite finished the book for this week’s review, but according to my Kindle, I’m 77% through it, and that’s plenty enough for me.

House of Dragons is one of a group of books I picked up last December, planning for my “100 new books/shows/etc. in 2021” goal and taking advantage of the cash-back-at-Amazon perk on one of my credit cards. I read through the sample, decided it was good enough to take a chance on, and circled around to it more recently. And I’m happy to say that so far, it was a chance well taken.

The setup is fairly straightforward: in a pseudo-Greek setting, complete with veiled references to the Iliad, an empire has arisen that controls the world by the might of their armies and their dragons. Whenever the emperor dies, their successor is selected by a battle of wits between the scions of five noble houses, each chosen by the dragon-god of the empire for the competition. Whoever wins gets to rule. The other four get to be executed, by whatever means the new emperor or empress pleases.

What follows is a pretty entertaining series of competitions as the five chosen candidates vie against each other to see who can rise to the top. Each of them has something going on that gives them an edge at different parts of the plot, but also a handicap — like the war hero who’s so sickened by his deeds that he’s sworn a vow of pacifism, or the dragon handler who’s lived her whole life as a servant, but knows dragons and their capabilities better than anyone else there. It keeps the competitions interesting, since no one person dominates for the entire span of the games. I also find it entertaining that the group of candidates manage to form a proper TV Tropes-style Five-Man Band despite the fact they start off literally as mortal enemies, given the fates of those who lose, and not particularly liking each other either.

As far as the dragons go, they’re there, but they’re of the beast variety, incapable of speech or anything like that, and therefore don’t have a tremendous impact on the plot as actual characters. There is no Toothless-like being here, in my mind. What they are good at, though, is playing off of their riders when they are on screen, and that seems like a deliberate choice by the author. One of the characters describes the dragons as being the souls of their riders at one point, and in at least one case that feels very accurate, whether any of the characters themselves recognize it or not.

Of course, as I said above, I’m only three-quarters of the way through the book. It’s possible something will happen in the remaining chapters to change my opinion, but honestly, I suspect that’s not going to happen. I’ll give House of Dragons a hearty recommendation if you’re looking for something light (but not too light) to read, and I might give the rest of the series a try one of these days.

Tooth and Claw: Victorian Cannibalistic Dragons Suing Each Other

You ever have those books that you run into, check out from the library but don’t read, buy but don’t finish, and only years later finally wrap up?

This is one of those. Over the years I’ve managed to acquire Tooth and Claw as an Audible book, an ebook from a Humble Bundle, and a paperback from a used book store down the street. Normally I have to actually try to get a book in all three formats. Here it just sort of happened, and I finally read the darned thing through last month.

The paperback bears a blurb from Jane Yolen that describes it as Pride and Prejudice with dragons. Having avoided Jane Austen pretty thoroughly so far in life, that’s not a comparison I can back up, although comparing it to Downton Abbey sort of works. The plot kicks off with a well-to-do lord on his deathbed, hoping to distribute his wealth among his children who aren’t yet established. But his son-in-law takes more of the inheritance than was intended, kicking off a whole slew of lawsuits, bad blood, and family in-fighting that drives the rest of the story.

Oh, and they’re all dragons. And the dragons of this world grow larger and stronger when they eat other dragons, so part of this father’s inheritance for his children — the part the son-in-law gets greedy over — is his own body.

Just to recap: this is a book that is, in part, about someone suing his brother-in-law because the jerk ate too much of his father’s corpse.

The premise is grisly, downright horrible at times, and absolutely bonkers, and I kinda love it.

One of the more interesting parts of the book is the history behind the whole place. Throughout we get bits and pieces of history that lead you towards an ancient war between dragons and humans (referred to as the “Yarge”) where the dragons won their freedom. The consequences of that shape things throughout the entire society, to the point that the eating of cooked meat is basically because the Yarge did it, and tried to make dragons do it. Other elements of the culture don’t have their ties described as obviously, but they’re probably still there, like with their tradition of eating “the weak” to preserve the strength of dragonkind. (I did say it was horrible at times.) It’s a pretty solid aspect of the worldbuilding, looking back at it.

The writing style here holds the book back from being a bigger success with me. It’s not bad, but it is imitating an older style that doesn’t resonate with me as much, and introduces a layer of separation from the characters and the action I could do without. Still, though, it’s not a hard book to recommend if you have any interest in the sort of storytelling it’s engaged in. Give it a look and see what you think.

The Book of Dragons: Not To Be Confused…

I don’t remember a lot of the editors behind the anthologies I’ve read — although, to be honest, I don’t remember a lot of the anthologies I’ve read either. A couple stand out, though, and one of them is Jonathan Strahan, the fellow behind the dragon story collection Wings of Fire (which has a Todd Lockwood cover, no less) and the less strictly-categorized Fearsome Journeys (which I have fond memories of, although I haven’t read it in some time). 2020 brought us another dragon story collection edited by Strahan, The Book of Dragons, which is not to be confused with the Gardner Dozois- edited title The Dragon Book, which we’ve reviewed already here. It’s awkward, I know. So it goes.

A couple things led me to buy this when it came out last year, even if I’m only getting around to reading it in 2021. For one, we have the aforementioned enjoyment of the editor’s compilations. For another, it’s a dragon anthology, and that’s really all the excuse I need. But the big one is that all of the stories published here are brand new.

No worries that I’ll get another copy of Anne McCaffrey’s Weyr Search, or Orson Scott Card’s The Bully and the Beast, or George R. R. Martin’s The Ice Dragon, all of which I own at least three times over. Nope, everything in here is shiny and new. There are stories by Garth Nix, Seanan McGuire, Peter S. Beagle, all kinds of names you might recognize.

And it is a shiny collection indeed. After the ordeal that was my review cycle for The Dragon Book, I’m not going over each of the stories in here individually, but I will say that, even with three titles left to go, this one gets a hearty recommendation. The art within and without is excellent, all pencil sketches and grayscale. Some of the titles are actually poems rather than short stories, and I am by no means a poetry guy, but I enjoyed them more than I would have expected. (Especially The Dragons, by Theodora Goss, which — among other positive elements — understands my view of Tuesdays.) Not every story is a home run for me, but without getting into in-depth breakdowns or spoilers, some of them are pretty darned fun.

And I think we’ve all earned a little fun lately, haven’t we?

Find yourself a copy, sit down, and enjoy.

Fire and Heist: Potential Left Unburned

I’ve a weird relationship with this book. I checked it out from my local library ages ago, while it was still marked as new, but didn’t get very far and returned it unfinished. A couple weeks ago, I picked it up again, intending to get through it this time. What did I find but a bookmark from my favorite indie bookstore nestled at the start of chapter 3. For all I know, this book has only been checked out twice, both times by me.

It’s a book with a pretty solid premise. Dragons are real, and living on Earth… but they’re only sort of real. Instead of true dragons, we have wyverns, self-described were-dragons, although no wyvern has taken on dragon form for a long time, the ability believed lost to time. They’re an exiled race, kicked out of their home dimension for crimes lost to time, and live as a form of celebrity on Earth, most likely thanks to their massive wealth. And the whole dragon thing.

Our protagonist, Sky, belongs to a family whose mother has vanished after a botched job that saw their collective renown thrown down a well. Ostracized by the wyvern community at large, she’s trying to figure out how to move on when she catches wind of a clue to her mother’s fate, and starts recreating her failed heist in an effort to track her down.

Like I said, the premise is a good one. The problem I have with the book is its execution. It doesn’t feel particularly focused, especially in the back third, where the plot makes some rather significant twists. I can’t get into it without delving into spoilers, but it invites a lot of questions and doesn’t answer enough of them for my tastes. There’s a lot of focus on the relationships impacted by Sky’s family’s fall from grace, some of which might have been better redirected elsewhere. And the characters weren’t put into enough of an actual crisis for you to feel truly scared for them. It’s not that everything goes right for them — it doesn’t — but nothing goes so cataclysmically wrong that you find yourself wondering if someone’s going to die.

By no means is it a bad book, but it’s not a great one either. There’s a better book lurking somewhere in here, but it might have required either a tighter focus or a longer page count. And higher stakes when things did go wrong. It appears this doesn’t have a paperback printing, so if you can find a library or used copy, maybe give it a look, but I wouldn’t pay new-hardcover price for it.

Burn The Witch: Little Fire, Lots of Smoke

I’ve been on an anime kick lately, which may very well result in My Hero Academia and Demon Slayer sneaking their way into the blog sooner or later (technically, My Hero does have a dragon in it in Season 4, but I digress). As those who have access to streaming services will understand, sometimes having access to such things means you try out random shows you might not have otherwise, and in this case, I found myself with a Crunchyroll subscription and plenty of time to play with it.

Enter Burn The Witch, an anime which was originally released as a film in Japan but was carved into three “episodes” by Crunchyroll for its Western release. The premise is one of two Londons: the normal one, and Reverse London, where witches form paramilitary organizations to help contain the threat of rampant dragons. It’s a setting setup I’ve seen plenty of times before, although this one is unusual in that it doesn’t go for a dark, grungy underworld such as Gaiman’s Neverwhere, or the sheer randomness of Mieville’s Un Lun Dun.

It’s a pretty interesting setup, I’m not going to lie. The problem with Burn The Witch is that setup is mostly what it is. The manga this is based off of was a one-shot Bleach tie-in (although that doesn’t affect it much, according to this person who’s never read Bleach), so there’s not much source material for the anime to work off of. A lot of setting elements are introduced, a lot of character things are set up, but there’s not many answers given. Why is unauthorized contact with dragons punished by spending a century in prison? Don’t know! Why do the powers that be issue a death warrant on one of the main characters at the end of episode 1? Don’t know! How does the magic system work, how does the political structure of Reverse London work, how do some of these characters know each other from before? Don’t know!

But here’s the thing — it works. Especially for a series that’s only about an hour long, all told. Were it much longer, it would either need to start answering questions or suffering the consequences, but it manages to slip in through the cracks and leave me enjoying the experience. It doesn’t hurt that the production values are excellent, with solid translation work and excellent animation. (The voice acting was good too, but I watched it subbed and I don’t speak Japanese, so I’m hardly an authoritative source on that score.) You don’t actually need a Crunchyroll subscription to watch the series (assuming you’re willing to endure Crunchy’s interminable ads, anyway), so give it a look if it strikes your fancy.

Dragonsbane: A Classic To Start The Year

Even if you’ve never heard of this book before, you may owe a fair bit to it. According to the “about the author” section in The Emperor’s Soul, this is the book that got Brandon Sanderson interested in reading. Not writing, reading. The rest, as they say, is history.

So what’s it about? Well, in the words of Sanderson himself, it’s a book about a woman going through a mid-life crisis, and I can’t help but agree. Once you boil away everything else, that’s the core of the plot. It’s a story about roads taken and not taken, the price of power, and the cost of chasing any given dream too far. But if that doesn’t sound like your kind of read, don’t judge it too quickly. It’s a darn fine book.

The story revolves around one Jenny Waynest, a witch of middling power torn between her love of her craft and her love of her lover, John Aversin, and their two sons. John’s earned a reputation for himself as a Dragonsbane, after killing a dragon that threatened the lands he holds fief over. This isn’t the sort of book where he did it by charging at the dragon with a drawn sword — he did it with poisoned harpoons and an axe. When Gareth, a nobleman from the king’s court. comes to beg John to dispatch another dragon pillaging a gnomish city near the human capitol, he reluctantly agrees, and Jenny travels with them. And things devolve from there.

The star of the novel is Jenny’s characterization and her interactions with the other characters, including Zyerne, a spoiled brat of a witch who serves as a mirror to Jenny herself, and Morkeleb, the dragon gracing the cover of the book. Surprisingly, Morkeleb doesn’t show up until about the two-thirds point of the book, but he makes an impact once he does arrive, that’s for sure. Everyone she runs into presents Jenny with a different set of lures, different aspects of who they are that pull at her, and the way she reacts to them is well-realized.

This book also features some of the most alien dragons I’ve ever run into. The illustration inside the novel is weird, almost insectile in some ways, and they don’t operate entirely withing the normal sphere of human emotions. Despite that culture-shift, Morkeleb is well-realized and compelling, and it all works. He also provides an explanation for why the dragons of this world hoard gold, which is different than the usual, and that’s always refreshing.

All in all, this is definitely a book I’d recommend. I’m not sure if it’s still in print or not, but digital copies are available, and you might be able to score a used one without too much trouble. Track one down and give it a try.

Looking Forward to 2021

Ideas of things to come… (plus the Pathfinder Red Dragon, painted by yours truly)

Well, I picked a fun year to reboot the blog, didn’t I?

Let’s not spend too much time dwelling on that, anyway. There have been some plus sides to this year — my publication in Fairytale Dragons, not missing any of my scheduled posts on the blog (give or take a day), plenty of new and exciting books released, lots of writing — and that’s just the stuff from my life. Despite all the chaos in the world, and in the US in particular, there are still plenty of examples of people stepping up to help out others and make things better.

Looking forward, though, we’ve got 2021. A year that promises plenty of its own brand of chaos all the same. But, we persevere, and we’ll make the best of it that we can. I’ve got a few plans in the making for next year, and I’ll share a few of them that seem relevant here:

  • More New Books — I’m going to try to get through 100 new books, games, movies, or the like in 2021, meaning that we’re going to see more new books and less re-reads in the blog reviews. Hopefully that will include a few series that I’ve never completed, such as Temeraire, Winterlands, or The Age of Fire, but we’ll see.
  • More Self-Published Books — I want to spend some more time digging up worthy self-published dragon books from the spice mines of Amazon. I’ve got a few samples sitting on Hugin, my Kindle, waiting to be attended to… once I finish the Warhammer 40k novel I’m reading… and maybe Rhythm of War too…
  • Video Games: I’m a big gamer, and while there are far too few good dragon games out there, I’ve got a few worth talking about. More to come on that later.
  • Non-Dragon Things: The tagline of this blog has always promised some non-draconic things, but that’s yet to transpire. Come next year, we’re going to break that. To Sleep In A Sea of Stars, Christopher Paolini’s new sci-fi novel that came out this year, seems a prime candidate to kick that off, but we won’t be stopping there.
  • And More!

So for those of you who have subscribed to my blog over this last year, or have enjoyed anything I’ve had to say here, I’d like to say thanks, I hope you had a merry Christmas and will have a happy New Year, and I hope you’ll join me again in the year to come as we delve deeper into the Library.