McKinley, Robin & Dickinson, Peter. Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits (2009). 297 Pages. Penguin Young Readers. $19.99
I never really thought about the possibility that a husband & wife team could actually write together in a cohesive way. I suppose I was working under the theory that one would ride on the other’s coattails, and the book would be a failure. Clearly, that was a poor assumption, as both Peter Dickinson and Robin McKinley are strong writers in their own right, and both have brought significant contributions to this anthology.
There are five stories in this volume, though there might once have been six. But that was before both Sunshine and Chalice became full-length novels, instead of novellas or short stories, suitable for inclusion. Three stories are by Peter Dickinson; “Phoenix,” “Fireworm,” and “Salamander man.” Two are by Robin McKinley; “Hellhound” and “First flight.” I have to say that I loved every single story, and I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite.
The volume opens with “Phoenix,” which takes a while to really unravel, but as it moves along, it reveals itself nicely. In a park in England there is a small preserve- Dave’s Wood. It is here that Ellie meets a boy, one who knows far more about the animals and trees in that little patch of forest than any child has time to know. The story isn’t about Ellie, rather, it is revealed to her by the Phoenix’s companions. There’s a lot going on, and there are a few surprises (though more of the “ooh, that’s nice” than the “omg what just happened” variety.) It was well-written, and very nicely paced.
I’m clearly biased to like Robin McKinley’s stories, so I doubt it’s a surprise that I loved “Hellhound.” Especially since I read her blog, and know that she refers to her own dogs as Hellhounds.*Our main character is Miri, a teenage girl who grew up helping at her family’s stable– cleaning, helping with horses, teaching riding lessons, and leading trail rides. Things begin to change when Miri graduates high school, and goes to the pound to adopt a dog. There she meets Flame, a dog she calls “hellhound” because of his solid red eyes. Some rather magical things happen, and Miri’s relationship with Flame enables her to save her brother from death.
If I had to say I had a least-favorite story in this volume, it would be “Fireworm,” which is about a rather primitive tribe and their nemesis; the fireworm. Tandin is an outcast in his tribe, because nobody knows his father, because of this, he holds no rank, and must sleep further from the fire than any other man in the tribe. Perhaps it is because he is so far from the fire that he wakes one night, to realize that the fireworm has appeared beneath their fire. He manages to save the tribe, and learns that he is to become a spirit walker– a sort of shaman. Because of insights he gains in the spirit world, he is able to help his tribe to defeat the fire worm at last. There are emotional consequences for characters, and I’m not sure I really liked the story. There were too many chances for Tandin to change course, chances which he ignored in favor of killing.
After “Fireworm” came “Salamander man” which was an interesting story. Tib has always known a life of slavery, and he has always served Aunt Ellila– a fact in which he was lucky, as the old woman actually cared for him. He helps her with her market stall, moving it, assembling it, and guarding it for her every day. Everything changes when a magician arrives, and forces Aunt Ellila to sell Tib. Desperately, the old woman gives Tib the one thing she can give; a salamander arm-band. However, despite the fact that most magicians are evil, this one is not, and has other plans for Tib. A lot of this story is told, rather than shown, but I feel like it’s solid nonetheless. The story was interesting, and I found myself caring what happened to Tib, and hoping things went well for the boy.
The volume closes with “First Flight” which is the longest of all the stories. Ern’s parents had his life planned out for him from the very beginning. His eldest brother Dag was to be a dragon rider. His second brother was a spiritspeaker, and Ern, the youngest son, was to be a wizard. In a lot of ways, this works out for everyone, the story isn’t about them chafing against their roles, rather, it is about how they embrace them. Though there is a middle brother, the story is more about Ern and Dag than the third sibling (whose name I cannot even recall). Ern has a talent for healing, though he denies it to himself constantly. He has a pet foogit (which is somewhere between a dog and a dragon) that he saved during its puppyhood. This ends up being very significant. A lot happens, and I don’t want to say too much about it because there is so very much to give away, but Ern goes to the Dragon Academy with his brother Dag, not quite knowing what he would do, but hoping to do something to help.
The Quick Version:
With five very solid stories by two very talented authors, this anthology is definitely worth reading. It is the second book in what should eventually become four elemental anthologies. Every story is a nice read, and they work well together as a set. It gets a solid 5/5.