Review No.234 – Throne of Jade

Throne of Jade (Temeraire No.2) – Naomi Novak

HarperVoyager, 2007

Originally published in 2006

As Napoleon’s forces overrun Europe, England cannot spare a single dragon from its Aerial Corps, but with the discovery that Captain Laurence’s dragon Temeraire is a Celestial – China’s most valued breed – the ire of a different empire has been roused. To avoid a war on two fronts, the government is more than willing to hand over Temeraire, but Temeraire himself will not go anywhere without Laurence. Entangled in a ruthless political game and beset on all sides, Laurence may need to choose between duty and loyalty – but what will Temeraire decide?

This is the sequel to Novak’s superb first novel Temeraire, which I reviewed last year, and is equally enjoyable. Not only is the characterisation excellent – even the most alienating characters are given depth – Novak explores a wide spectrum of issues with a mixture of quiet compassion and sharp awareness. I also love the way she writes battles. Claws and teeth and wings, oh my! The series continues with Black Powder War.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.117 – The Two Brothers

This Grimm fairy tale begins with a pair of brothers – as you may have expected from the title – who are career-coded for ease of reference. One is a goldsmith, rich and evil. The other is a broom-maker, kind-hearted and very poor. The latter brother also has two sons, twin boys who are in the habit of doing odd jobs at their uncle’s house and being rewarded with leftovers from the better table.

While out collecting wood one day, the poor brother catches sight of the most beautiful bird he’s ever seen. So of course the first thing he does is throw a stone at it. What happened to KIND-HEARTED? Luckily all he manages to do is dislodge a feather. He brings it to his brother, who identifies it as pure gold and pays a high price for it. The next day the broom-maker tracks the bird to its nest and steals all its eggs. These, too, are gold and worth a large sum to the rich brother. On the third day, the broom-maker finally succeeds in killing the poor creature, because there is no little old man there at the right moment to salvage matters. He sells the dead bird to his brother for a great deal of gold and goes home without a twinge of guilt.

Killing the goose (or whatever kind of bird it actually is) that lays the golden eggs is not quite so stupid a plan as it sounds, from a financial perspective. Unlike his brother, the goldsmith knows that whoever eats the bird’s heart and liver will find a gold piece under their pillow each morning. He has his wife set it roasting over the fire, but when she leaves the kitchen for a moment her nephews come running in and try to help. They turn the spit a few times. In the process a couple of pieces fall off and the boys eat them, thinking no one will miss the scraps.

I’m giving you one guess what those two pieces are.

The goldsmith’s wife works it out immediately. Knowing her husband will probably blame her, she quickly kills a cockerel and stuffs the heart and liver of the ordinary bird into the body of extraordinary one. The goldsmith cannot tell the difference from taste, but the absence of gold under his pillow is a bit of a giveaway. In the broom-maker’s house, meanwhile, the twins wake each morning to a growing fortune and their father blithely tells his brother. Realising what’s happened, the goldsmith takes his revenge by insisting the gold is cursed and the boys are miniature Satanists. The broom-maker pulls a woodcutter and abandons both children in the woods, deep enough that they will not find their way home. Excuse me, narrative, THIS IS NOT WHAT KIND PEOPLE DO.

But this story is not about him, or the goldsmith. Those two are decoy brothers.

So what befalls the twins? A hunter finds them lost in the forest and hears that they are human gold machines. “Well,” he says thoughtfully, “that’s really nothing terrible as long as you remain good and upright and don’t become lazy.” He takes them home, training them up to be hunters and saving all their gold as a trust find because he’s a genuinely kind-hearted person. When they are full-grown, he takes them out to test their skills. They manage to shoot down specific geese from a formation overhead (no birds are safe in this story) and he proclaims both young men to be full-fledged hunters.

Now that they are officially men of the world, they want to go exploring, so he gives each a gun, a hunting dog and a share in their fortune. “If ever you should separate,” he advises, offering one final gift, “stick this knife into a tree at the crossroad. Then if one of you comes back, he can see how his absent brother is doing, for the side of the blade facing the direction he took will rust if he’s dying but will stay bright as long as he’s alive.” The brothers take the knife and set off.

They do not bring much food with them – why should they, as skilled hunters? But that’s not so simple an equation as they thought. Their first target, a hare, cries out a protest and offers two of its young in exchange for its life. The baby hares are so adorable the hunters agree. Next they try to kill a fox, who makes the same bargain. By the time they reach the other side of the forest, they have a troupe of two hares, two foxes, two wolves, two bears and two lion cubs. Because what Germanic forest is complete without lions?

So the twins now have a menagerie of cute but nothing to eat. They have the foxes lead them to the nearest village (aka a chicken-stealing hotspot) where they buy enough food for themselves and all their animals, and continue travelling with the foxes as their guides. After some while of travelling together looking for useful employment – well done, foster dad hunter, you have instilled a solid work ethic! – they decide to separate. At the next crossroads they stick their father’s blade in a tree and turn their separate ways, with the animals dividing up accordingly.

One brother goes west. He soon comes to a city swathed in masses of black crepe, which strikes him as an eccentric choice in urban beautification. After settling his animals at an inn for the night, he inquires about the purpose of all that crepe and the innkeeper explains that it is mourning for the king’s daughter, who is about to die. “Is she that sick?” the hunter asks. The answer is no, she’s perfectly healthy, but on a mountain outside the city there lives a sanctimonious dragon who will only eat the ‘purest’ of maidens and enforces his strict diet by threatening to destroy the kingdom if he’s not well supplied. As literally the last virgin for miles around, the princess is next on his menu.

The shocked hunter wants to know why no one has done something about this situation, such as killing the dragon. The innkeeper assures him many knights have tried, but none have ever succeeded. The next day, the hunter sets off up the mountain.

At the top he finds a small church and three goblets on the altar with a ‘Drink Me’ style note announcing that whoever drinks of the contents will become the strongest man in the world and will also be able to draw the sword buried in stone outside. After testing his own strength against the sword, just to be sure, the hunter knocks back all three goblets and this time pulls the sword loose with ease. Who put all that strength potion there? Why did no other knight ever receive this kind of assistance? Why am I even hoping for an answer?

When the king’s daughter climbs the mountain – watched from a distance by her father’s marshal, presumably to ensure she doesn’t bolt – she finds the hunter waiting there. He ushers her inside the church, then stands watch for the dragon. The creature makes for a formidable sight, seven-headed and flaming, but is taken aback at the interruption to his routine. “What do you think you’re doing on this mountain?” he demands. “I’ve come to fight you,” the hunter explains. The dragon promptly opens all seven of his mouths and sets fire to the dry grass, intending to asphyxiate the hunter with all the smoke, but the menagerie of wood creatures come rushing to put out the flames and when the frustrated dragon lunges forward the hunter manages to cut off three of his heads at once.

Enraged by the pain, the dragon breathes flames directly at his enemy. The hunter deftly ducks away and cuts off three more heads. The dragon attempts another lunge; the hunter swings the sword again and this time just gets the tail. Realising he’s lost his advantage, he calls to his animals and they come to finish off the task by ripping the dragon into little pieces.

When it’s all over, the hunter opens the church doors. The princess passed out during the worst of the battle but cheers up enormously when the hunter carries her outside to see the dismembered dragon. She promptly proposes, and wins my heart at least by turning her coral necklace into adorable little collars for the hunter’s menagerie. The hunter himself is given her handkerchief. He uses it for wrapping up all seven of the dragon’s tongues. I’m pretty sure that’s not what lover’s tokens are for…

After the excitement of fighting and fainting and smoke inhalation, he suggests a restorative nap and the princess agrees. They lie down side by side, tasking the animals to keep watch – but they are all as exhausted as each other and one by one drift into sleep.

Remember the marshal? When the dragon fails to fly away, he decides to investigate and finds the sleepers peacefully settled amidst the carnage. He sees an opportunity. Drawing his own sword, he beheads the hunter and carries off the princess. When she wakes, he threatens to murder her if she doesn’t back up his story that he killed the dragon. Only once he has her properly terrified does he take her home to her father and even then, her agreement is deliberately vague. The marshal tries to claim the promised reward of her hand in marriage, but she insists on a delay of a year and a day. She hopes that by then the hunter will have returned for her.

That’s…awkward, given he’s dead and all. When the animals waken and see what has happened, they all turn on the hare, who was the last to fall asleep. The only thing that stops them killing him on the spot is his assurance that he can bring their master back to life. With the frenetic speed of the panicked and guilt-ridden, he dashes away and rapidly returns with a magical root. When the lion places it in the hunter’s mouth, he immediately comes back to life – unfortunately, in his distress, the lion put his head on backwards.

The hunter doesn’t even notice at first. He thinks the princess has ditched him and is deeply depressed. The animals explain the situation as best they can, which is not very well, and the lion rips off his head so they can put it around the right way. The hunter doesn’t even care. Instead of pressing his claim on an apparently unwilling woman, he departs like a true gentleman and travels the world with his animals as a multi-species dance troupe.

Twelve months later, he passes through the city again and sees it is now draped all in crimson. The same innkeeper tells him it is in honour of the princess’s impending marriage. The quietly furious hunter sets a wager with him: that he can partake of the wedding feast without leaving the inn. His hare bravely races through the streets, pursued by the city’s dogs; he loses them at the palace and sneaks into the princess’s room, where she recognises him by his collar and greets him delightedly. At his request, she orders the baker to carry a loaf of bread to the inn. The hare takes it from him in the street outside and carries it to his master.

Next, the hunter wants a piece of roast meat. And some vegetables. And a little something sweet to finish. Course by course each animal slips into the palace, and comes out again with a gift from the princess; until the bear comes for dessert and the guards try to stop him. He slaps them irritably aside and goes straight to the princess, who gives him enough sugarplums that he can satisfy his own sweet tooth as well.

Last of all, the hunter orders wine. His lion saunters down the street, sending citizens scattering in all directions, and is sent to the royal wine cellar with the king’s own cupbearer. He insists on tasting each wine he’s offered – none of them are good enough. “How can a stupid beast understand anything about wine?” demands the cupbearer, and gets knocked over by the exasperated critic. After that he finally brings out bottles of the king’s private vintage and the lion – by now a bit drunk – has him carry them back to the inn. The hunter dines cheerfully with his menagerie, deciding the princess must like him after all.

When the meal is finished he bounces up from the table, announcing he’s going to marry the king’s daughter. The innkeeper points out she’s marrying someone else today. Even after being shown the dragon’s seven tongues, he bets his house that the hunter isn’t her real saviour. Meanwhile, the king is asking his daughter why tempestuous animals have been treating his house like a drive-through all day. She won’t explain herself, but advises he send for the hunter at once. The servant has perfect timing, arriving at the door just as the hunter makes his bet with the innkeeper. Pushing his victory for all its worth, the hunter insists on being sent fine clothes and a carriage before coming to the palace.

While the king is by now truly bewildered, he trusts his daughter and goes to receive her eccentric guest. In a deeply awkward turn of events, the hunter ends up seated next to his murderer, who doesn’t recognise him now he’s not covered in blood and ashes. The wedding ceremony is going ahead: it begins with the dragon’s seven heads being carried out on display, as the king praises his marshal’s courage. The hunter puts a spanner in the works, wondering aloud where the dragon’s tongues are. “Dragons have no tongues,” the marshal mutters. “Liars should have no tongues,” the hunter retorts, producing the princess’s handkerchief and its grisly contents. He then takes off each animal’s coral collar, showing how they were once all one necklace. The marshal’s treachery is revealed and as punishment the outraged king has him torn apart by four oxen. While he was undoubtedly a bad person, that’s way over the top. Prison time is an option, your majesty.

Anyway, no one thinks about that because they’re so excited about the princess marrying her true rescuer. The hunter dismisses his bet with the innkeeper and gives him a generous pile of gold in thanks for the timely gossip. Married life in the royal family suits the hunter splendidly – he rides out often with his gun and his animals to practice his favourite activity – but there’s one cloud on the horizon. Nearby is a forest rumoured to be enchanted. The hunter, by now officially appointed king of the realm, is the sort of person who is magnetically attracted to this kind of place. One day he rides into the forest in pursuit of a white doe, and does not return.

This is because he gets completely lost and is forced to make camp. While he’s sitting by a fire, surrounded by his animals, he’s startled by the sound of a human voice. He looks around at the dark trees, then up – and sees an old woman clinging to a branch above his head. She’s too afraid of his animals to come down and tosses him a switch, telling him to tap each beast to prove they won’t hurt her. Instead, the touch of the switch turns them to stone. She then jumps lightly down, strikes the young king himself with the switch and drags all the new statues to join her already impressive collection.

But what, you may be wondering, has become of the brother who went east? He, too, hit upon the idea of forming a dance act with his animals and has had moderate success. Passing the crossroads where he parted from his twin, he stops to check the knife and is greatly alarmed – for though half of that side of the blade is bright, half is rusty, meaning his brother must be in mortal danger. His anxious search leads him to the gates of the same city his brother now rules, where he’s mistaken for the young king. He puts no one right about that, thinking a bit of royal privilege may make his task easier, but when he’s obliged to share a bed with his brother’s wife he lays a sword between them to show how totally not into her he is. Luckily she’s not a restless sleeper.

He spends several days making inquiries about the forest, then insists on going there himself. As before, a white doe appears and he chases it. Just like with his brother, it disappears and he’s obliged to make camp overnight. He encounters the same old woman, but does not have his twin’s trusting temperament and refuses to strike any of his animals with her switch. “Either you come down,” he tells her, “or I’ll come get you!” She laughs at this, rightly – the lead bullets of his gun do her no harm. Then he loads up his gun with three silver buttons off his jacket, and those have an effect. She falls from the tree with a scream and he pounces on her at once, demanding to know what she did to his brother. Reluctantly, she leads him to the pit where she keeps her statues. He orders her to restore them all to life. A touch of her switch does the trick – the brothers embrace joyfully, then tie up the witch and burn her alive.

That is so – not necessary. Could they not have just turned her to stone? The concept of justice in this kingdom is utterly screwed up.

The brothers return home, swapping stories about their adventures. The one who is still a hunter unwisely reveals he temporarily took over his brother’s life, including his place in the princess’s bed, and is not given a chance to explain any more – overcome by a fit of blinding jealousy, the young king cuts off his head. He is instantly remorseful, however little that’s worth. The hare, accustomed to sudden death in this man’s presence, rushes off to fetch the root of life and the hunter is restored so swiftly that he doesn’t even know he died. No one enlightens him.

The young king arranges that they should enter the palace from opposite gates, baffling the princess and her father with their mirror arrivals. At first the princess cannot tell the two men apart. Then she spies the coral collars on her husband’s animals and decides this one must be hers, but still doesn’t know how she’s been deceived. That night she asks the young king why he’s been coming to bed with a sword lately and he realises how trustworthy his brother really is.

This story does not end with a happily ever after and well may it not – these brothers do not appear to have the aptitude for quiet lives. I am deeply disappointed in the first hunter, he starts out the story behaving so well only to get all hilt-happy at the end. There are regional variations on the twins of fortune theme, including Greece’s ‘The Twins’ (in which the rescued brother confesses to having killed and resurrected his twin) and Spain’s ‘The Knights of the Fish’ (in which the issue never comes up because they just trust each other). What I find most interesting about this version is how it contains the elements of so many other stories, from the golden goose to the sword in the stone. Who knows what the brothers may encounter next? I’m sure they can handle it, if they can only keep from each other’s throats that long.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.111 – The Four Clever Brothers

Yes, you read that right, this Grimm fairy tale is about four brothers, not three, in a startling reversal of narrative norms – but it starts off with a totally familiar scene of the boys gathered together receiving their father’s wisdom. And for once it’s pretty good wisdom. He has no money to bequeath them so advises his sons to all go forth and seek a trade. This they do, and when they come to a crossroads each brother takes a different direction, having first promised one another to return to the same spot in four years time to see how the others have fared. This makes no sense because one of those four roads must lead back the way they came, but four is an important number to this family so let’s pretend we didn’t notice.

The eldest brother tells the first man he meets that he’s looking for a trade and this man immediately offers to teach him – how to be a thief. “No,” the eldest brother replies, shocked, “that is not an honest calling, and what can one look to earn by it in the end but the gallows?” The thief points out this is only a problem if you get caught. “I will only teach you to take what no one else wants, what no one else can get, or care anything about, and where no one can find you out.” The eldest brother overcomes his moral objections pretty quickly and turns out to be really good at thieving. So he’s all right.

The second brother takes the same approach. His random stranger offers to teach him the art of star-gazing, and thus how to read all manner of secrets in the heavens. This brother needs no convincing, and takes to the work well. At the end of his service his master gives him a spyglass. “With this,” he explains, “you can see all that is passing in the sky and on earth, and nothing can be hidden from you.” That sounds more like magic than skill, but whatever, that’s the two eldest brothers set up just fine. Normally by now they’d both be enchanted or dead. This is confusing.

The third brother runs into a friendly hunter, who takes him home and trains him up; at the end of his service, he gets a particularly impressive bow. Meanwhile the youngest brother almost bucks the trend of jumping aboard the first trade suggested to him, because he doesn’t want to be a tailor, but his prospective boss is cunningly enigmatic about the work and eventually rewards his pupil with a needle that can sew anything without leaving behind a visible seam.

So the four brothers meet up at the appointed time and return home to show off their shiny new skills. Their father tests each boy with a small but difficult task. The second brother is told to divine the number of eggs in a birdsnest; his elder brother is told to steal the eggs without the bird knowing they are gone, upon the success of which the third brother is told to shoot all the eggs in half at one shot. Afterwards, it falls to the youngest brother to sew up the eggs and the baby birds inside, so his eldest brother can slip them back into the nest. A few days later the eggs hatch and the baby birds emerge quite well, though with a thin red line across each of their necks as evidence of their brush with the brothers.

Having established the boys are experts in their individual fields, it does not take long for a real challenge to emerge. The king’s daughter is abducted by a dragon and the king has no idea what to do, beyond sending out word that whoever comes up with a successful rescue plan will win the princess’ hand in marriage. Imaginative, he is not. It has the desired effect, though, because the brothers set out straight away. The stargazer looks through his glass (please stop acting like this is science, Grimms, IT IS MAGIC) and sees the princess trapped on a rock in the middle of the sea. The brothers ask the king for a ship and travel to the aforesaid rock, where the dragon is napping, his huge head balanced on the princess’s lap. That cannot be comfortable. The hunter does not want to risk a shot, lest he kill the princess, so the thief sneaks her out from under the dragon and they sail away.

They have not gone far when the dragon wakes and realises his new pet has disappeared. As he dives for the ship, the hunter shoots him through the heart. Unfortunately, the corpse lands square on the ship, overturning it and throwing them all into the water. This is when Brother No.4 comes into his own. Quickly stitching up a few planks into a raft, he paddles about rebuilding the ship. It’s close enough to seaworthy that they reach the shore safely and the princess is returned to her home.

Here arises the first real difficulty of the whole endeavour – if the reward is marriage to the princess and there are four equally worthy candidates, what’s to be done? The brothers squabble about it in frustrated circles, pointing out the value of their own talents, until the king intervenes. “Each of you is right,” he says, “and as all cannot have the young lady, the best way is for neither of you to have her; and to make up for the loss, I will give each, as a reward for his skill, half a crown.” Not an actual crown, it should be pointed out, he’s talking about money, and not very much of it. The brothers, though, are so glad to have a solution they take the coins and go home happily.

This story is unconventional in a few different ways. The elder brothers make it through the story without turning into terrible and/or dead people! The princess doesn’t have to marry anybody! Though I’d be happier if someone had asked her what she thought about her suitors, and whether she fancied any of them. There are quite a few similar stories from all over the world, including Sicily and China – the number of brothers vary, as do their abilities, challenges and eventual reward, but in every story success depends on the whole family working together. This story may be ambiguous about the morality of thieving and financial compensation for heroic action, but its heart is in the right place.

Review No.122 – A Tale of Two Castles

A Tale of Two Castles – Gail Carson Levine

Harper, 2011

When twelve-year-old Elodie leaves home to apprentice herself in the town of Two Castles, she is determined to learn the art of performance and become a mansioner. Her arrival, however, does not go according to plan and she soon finds herself embroiled in the intrigues of a temperamental dragon, an unpopular king and an ostracised ogre. A fiendish plot is afoot and everyone has their secrets. Who can Elodie really trust?

Gail Carson Levine has a matter-of-fact style that’s easy to read, especially for the younger audience this book is aimed at, and puts a spin entirely her own on this very loose retelling of ‘Puss in Boots’. Elodie is a capable protagonist and the supporting characters are charmingly unconventional (mild spoiler: my favourite is the gender non-conformist, wannabe detective dragon). Carson Levine’s other books include Ella Enchanted and Fairest.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.106 – The Nine Doves

Monarchs with beautiful daughters have an unfortunate history of going overboard on security and one such is the king in this Greek story, taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Dragons. He’s so obsessed with his daughter’s safety that he shuts her up in a glass tower – not just glass, either, opaque glass so she can’t see any of the ugly things in the world. Even the meat she eats must have the bones removed before it’s served to her, in case she chokes. Finally she’s had enough of being coddled and orders the servants to bring her ordinary food, which she manages to eat perfectly well without killing herself. She then throws the leftover bone at the glass wall, creating a DIY window.

The first thing she sees is a flock of doves flying past. Eight of the number are black and fly straight past, but the ninth is white and circles the tower a couple of times before fluttering inside. The princess immediately, and fruitlessly, tries to catch it. In the process a ring falls from her finger and the dove catches it up before flying away.

The next day the same thing happens, only this time the princess drops a bracelet and the dove steals that instead. On the third day, the kleptomaniacal bird takes her handkerchief. On the fourth day, her dad shows up to ruin her fun. “It must be repaired,” he says at once, when he sees the window. “But it is very special glass. It came from the east; it may take months to get another piece. And I can’t let you stay here until it is mended. Why – anything might come in!”

Thus the princess is sent to stay with her godmother in the country, which is actually great, because her godmother could not care less what she gets up to. The height of her concern is warning the princess it would be better not to leave the garden. So the princess just stands at the gate and chats with all the passersby.

At this point we’re going to take a diversion into the life of a local boy, described in the book as a ‘simpleton’, though he seems no easier to fool than anyone else. He makes a living cutting wood in the forest with his donkey and one day it gets loose, trotting blithely away through the wood and vanishing through a door in a tree trunk. On the other side is a stair ascending into a vast chamber. Having followed his donkey this far, the boy is astonished to see the animal suddenly disappear. The door vanishes at the same time, leaving him no choice but to investigate the room for other options.

At the far end is a fireplace. The boy sees partridges cooking in the cauldron hung over it and takes one, prudently hiding in a nearby cupboard to eat. He’s barely finished his meal when nine doves come flying through the wall and shake off their feathers. The white one becomes a man. The eight black ones become dragons. The boy starts regretting all his life decisions.

The dragons depart, leaving the young man behind. He claps his hands and a maid comes in to serve up the remaining bird. Perplexed as she is by the disappearance of half his dinner, the young man himself doesn’t seem to care and the boy in the cupboard feels insulted on the food’s behalf, but keeps watching. When the dishes have been cleared away, the young man takes out a handkerchief, a bracelet and a ring, kissing each then starting to cry. “Oh my princess!” he cries. “What has become of you? I fly past your tower. I fly through the window. I fly and I seek you, but I cannot find you!”

He’s sobbing against the table when the sound of the dragons coming back snaps him out of it. He has just enough time to sweep the keepsakes into a pocket before the dragons return to the room, resume the shape of doves and fly away, taking the transformed young man with them. Left alone again, the boy emerges and rediscovers both the door and his donkey. It calmly leads him out into the forest, where he has nothing else to do except go back to chopping wood. When he goes to add the new logs to his sack, he finds his donkey tied up exactly where he left it before the whole doors and dragons adventure began. You might consider that a little odd, and you would be right, but the boy accepts things as they are because he has plans for the afternoon. Like everyone else within gossip radius, he’s heard that there’s a princess in town who likes conversation and he’s determined to meet her.

Yes, she’s back in the story! She’s made it a policy to ask all passersby at her godmother’s gate whether they’ve seen her lost possessions, as this may lead her to the white dove, and at last it pays off when the boy relates the full story of his bizarre day. The princess demands he take her to the woods and show her the door. At first he refuses, uncomfortable at the idea of walking around with royalty, but she talks him into it and they return to the hidden room. The princess settles in to wait, shutting herself in the cupboard. As before, the doves fly through the wall, one turns into a man and the man starts crying over his stolen mementoes – only this time the princess throws open the cupboard doors and declares her presence. True love is in the house!

It turns out the young man is a prince, stolen from his cradle by the eight dragons because they wanted a son – a dragon son, specifically, but as their spells have only succeeded as far as a bird that’s simply had to suffice. “How can I ask the hand of a princess, even though I love her with my whole soul,” he cries, “when half my time I am a dove, and only half my time a prince?”

The princess is not unsympathetic to his problem, but is more interested in escaping before the dragons get back. They run all the way to the glass tower, which cannot be as far away as I assumed, and take refuge there. Distance is not much protection, however. When the dragons resume the shape of doves, the prince is forced to the do the same. The princess takes the tearful bird in her hands and introduces him to her father, explaining the difficult circumstances.

“But this is a very astonishing and awkward thing,” the king protests, “that you should want to marry a dove!” “He isn’t always a dove,” the princess repeats patiently. The dragons fly around her tower, but as there is no longer a hole in the wall they can’t get in and must return to their lair to think up a different plan. The moment they become dragons again, the dove turns into a prince, and the king gets what’s going on. He agrees they’d better marry at once, while the groom is still human.

See, that’s why I write Fairy Tale Tuesdays, I love getting to say things like that.

While the glass tower is much more enjoyable with company, both prince and princess are soon tired of it and risk a walk in the garden. Sadly, this is a trap. The eight black doves fly past and the prince, now a dove once more, is obliged to fly with them. The princess dashes to her father with very precise architectural instructions, and given that’s the foundation of their relationship he is quick to oblige. In due time a house is built for her, surrounded on all sides by a high iron wall with only one gate, and the princess goes to live there. She sends her maid to the woodcutter boy, asking him to take a letter to the room in the forest, and the maid charms him into agreeing. The letter being delivered, and the prince having agreed to his wife’s plan, she waits for her chance.

One day the nine doves come flying past her house. The princess lets the white dove in, then slams the solid iron gate shut and even when the other doves take the shapes of dragons, they can’t break it down. In their helpless rage, they spontaneously combust, which I suppose is a pretty creditable cause of death for fire-breathing lizards.

The prince is not yet safe. The dragons put three pins through his head before they set out, trapping him in the shape of a bird and leaving him in great pain. Kissing her dove, the princess touches something sharp and realises what’s happened. When she pulls out the pins, the prince takes his human form permanently, and they can start their happy ever after officially. It won’t be in a glass tower.

After all his help, the woodcutter boy is summoned to name an appropriate reward. His first thought is a pretty apron for his mother, which is granted, but the king wants to give something grander. The boy racks his brains. His second request is half a bucket of oats for his donkey, and lastly, a silver feather to wear in his hat. Perhaps that’s not as extravagant a gift as the king was prepared to give, but the boy is happy and that’s all that matters.

I admit, I feel a bit cheated. DRAGON FOSTER PARENTS, people. While it certainly seems they weren’t good parents, it’s a concept that deserves proper exploration! Another aspect of this story that needs explanation is the mysterious donkey. How did it get loose, then get tied up again? How did it disappear and reappear at will? How did it climb stairs, for pity’s sake? It’s a good thing the boy remembered those oats, is all I can say.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.100 – An Adoration of Dragons

Cue the curse-breaking and mass reanimations! Since starting this project two years ago I’ve spent one hundred Tuesdays reviewing fairy tales and if you aren’t equipped to get that joke by now, I do not know what to do with you people.

As I’ve already reviewed ‘Sleeping Beauty’, however, I looked elsewhere for this week’s fairy tale. A milestone such as this requires celebration, and what better way than DRAGONS! It’s often assumed that all fairy tale dragons want to do is eat princesses and lurk in caverns of gold – and that the happy ending demands death by knight – but there is so much more to them than that and I have a quartet of fabulous fiery beasts only too happy to prove it.

Story 1: Chien Tang

This Chinese fairy tale is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Dragons and its titular hero is a dragon in the service of Heaven. His duty is to bring down the rain when it is most needed and blow the clouds away when it is not. When not thus occupied, he lives peaceably in his well. The grateful populace often come there to sing his praises, dropping poems and flowers as tokens of their appreciation, but one day the fairy tale version of an internet troll comes by to make trouble. He throws a bundle of rags and a rude little down the well for Chien Tang to read.

You know what they say about letting sleeping dragons lie? That’s because BAD THINGS happen when you offend them. Chien Tang is so outraged that he whips up a ferocious storm and makes it rain for nine whole years. Villages are washed away and the people either drown or flee.

This is known as an overreaction.

At last the Supreme Ruler of Heaven has had enough and throws Chien Tang into a lake to think about what he’s done, whilst chained to a pillar so he can’t do it again. The pillar belongs to the palace of the Dragon King, who is incidentally Chien Tang’s brother. The Dragon King has recently married off his beautiful daughter to the dragon king of a nearby river – in hindsight, a dreadful mistake. Her husband is abusive and treats her like a slave.

Dragons, it’s important to note, can be shapeshifters. The princess is out herding goats in human form when she meets a young student called Liu. Seeing how unhappy she looks, he offers his assistance and she reveals the whole miserable business. A similar explanation is contained in a letter she has written for her father, but until now she’s had no means of sending it. Acting on her instructions, Liu goes to the Dragon King’s lake and strikes the tallest tree on the bank three times. This draws the attention of a young dragon who takes him down to a magnificent bejewelled palace, where the whole court await his message. When the Dragon King himself enters and the truth of his daughter’s marriage comes out, everybody begins to weep and wail. Too late, they remember that the princess’s uncle is within hearing range.

Outraged on behalf of his niece, Chien Tang breaks free of his chain and soars to the rescue. He takes care of the situation with incredible speed: first devouring his niece’s awful husband, then dashing up to Heaven to ask forgiveness for the whole flooding thing, before returning to the lake with the glowing princess in his arms. She marries Liu instead, who now has excellent motivation to be the ideal spouse.

Story 2: Pepito

This Greek story is from the same collection. Pepito is a young woodcutter struggling to support his widowed mother. One day, while out at work in the forest, he is approached by a well-dressed merchant offering a sweet deal – several days service on a short voyage in exchange for a hatful of gold pieces. Pepito does not need to be asked twice. The merchant has a whole fleet of ships waiting, and when Pepito arrives they set off.

Three days later they drop anchor alongside an island that is ninety nine percent mountain. Pepito’s job is to get to the top and throw down whatever he finds there. There’s a catch: the only way to reach the top is to be sewn inside a carcass so that the hungry local eagles will carry him up, then cut his way free before they tear the carcass to pieces. Pepito manages, just. The eagles are deeply unhappy about being tricked.

Fighting his way free of the bull hide, Pepito looks around and realises just what it is the merchant wants so badly. The top of the mountain is a meadow where brightly coloured flowers grow thickly – and scattered around them just as thickly are jewels and coins. Pepito is entranced. At the merchant’s distant shout, though, he snaps to his task and begins hurling treasure over the side of the mountain. He works all day, until every ship is loaded. Then the merchant sets sail, abandoning Pepito with no way to get down.

All of that treasure seems considerably less appealing now. Pepito throws a huge gemstone out of sheer misery, accidentally revealing a ladder that was hidden beneath. It leads down to a dark passage, and that in turn leads to a lush valley. A marble palace amidst the green fields implies habitation, so Pepito heads for that. As he walks through the open gates there appears to be no one home, but a loaf of bread and flagon of milk are laid out in one room. Pepito is draining the last of the milk when a whirring of wings alerts him to the return of the owner. It is a magnificent dragon with a golden beard and golden horns! Far from being angry at Pepito’s arrival, the dragon is thrilled to have company. He beams welcoming fangs and wags his tail, trying to look approachable.

Pepito cautiously introduces himself. “I haven’t got a name that I know of,” the dragon sadly replies. “You see, there’s no one to call me anything. And no one to talk to except the fishes in the stream. And they’re so silly – they do nothing but giggle.” It’s all too much. He bursts into tears. Pepito, remembering a rumour that dragons love pearls, offers one he pocketed in the meadow and the dragon cheers right up, fitting the jewel into the scales of his neck.

They are oddly matched housemates, but Pepito hasn’t much choice in the matter and the dragon is a deeply conscientious host, giving his new friend the best of everything. Then one day Pepito notices a door he hasn’t seen before and wants to know what’s behind it. At first the dragon tries to deflect him. Eventually, however, he’s pressured into handing over the key. On the other side lies a pretty but otherwise unremarkable garden and Pepito is just about to leave when a pigeon flutters down, turning into a beautiful girl. She takes off her robe of feathers and bathes in the garden’s fountain. Disregarding the basic rules of privacy, Pepito tries to talk to her, but she just pulls on her robe and flies away.

The dragon explains the situation. The girl’s father is a magician and her mother is a witch; they cursed her to be trapped in the shape of pigeon, only allowed to become human when she bathes in the fountain. This is the kind of punishment magical parents consider appropriate for disobedience. Pepito is immediately fired up with the resolve to rescue her, which isn’t really that difficult – all he needs to do is take away her robe of feathers. Next time she comes down to the fountain, he seizes it and proposes marriage.

The girl seems okay with that. It’s better than being a pigeon, anyway. The dragon is less than pleased at the interruption to his bromance, but produces some beautiful clothes for the girl to wear instead of her robe. He advises Pepito to burn the feathers, but Pepito thinks they’re too beautiful and the girl assures him she’ll never want to wear the robe again. The dragon turns himself into a priest to marry them, then back into a dragon to be their sole and somewhat sulky wedding guest.

The couple live very happily in the dragon’s palace. In time they have two children, a boy and a girl, and the lullaby their mother sings to them reminds Pepito of his own mother. The dragon, who has grown very attached to the whole family, nobly offers to send Pepito home, on the condition he eventually comes back. In a blink of dragon magic, Pepito finds himself transported to his mother’s cottage, his wife and children with him. The joy of the reunion is supplemented with the long-promised gold.

Pepito buys a farm (forgetting all about his promise to the dragon) and has his mother come live with him. He gives her the feather robe to hide, but it’s so beautiful that she sometimes brings it out to admire, and on one such occasion her daughter-in-law comes in unexpectedly. She reaches out to touch the feathers and the robe lifts by itself, wrapping around her. A pigeon once more, and the children cursed with her, she cries out a clue for her husband: “seek me in the castles green and the castles red and the five white towers!”

Pepito’s mother passes on the directions when he gets home, but he has no idea what they mean. His only hope is the dragon. Disguising himself, he goes to the port and hires on with the same merchant. This time he turns the tables; the merchant gets him where he wants to go, but doesn’t get so much as a penny out of it. Instead Pepito climbs straight down the passage to the dragon’s hidden valley.

His friend has been desperately lonely since he left and is so overjoyed to see Pepito again that he turns somersaults. His mood takes a downturn when he realises Pepito is just there for information and plans to go away again when he gets it, but being an awesome person and the best of friends the dragon tells him what to do anyway. Deep in the dragon’s palace are stored a rusty sword, an old hat and the stump of a poplar tree – all of which are considerably more powerful than they appear. The sword will cut down whatever it’s told, the hat will make you invisible, and the stump will carry you wherever you need to go. Abandoned twice over, the dragon sadly watches Pepito go.

The five white towers stand on a white mountain, which sounds like a riddle about teeth or something but isn’t. Pepito’s wife is in the courtyard of the fifth tower, dressed in rags and feeding chickens. Amongst the poultry are two little pigeons. Pepito whips off his hat to reveal himself and his family rush to greet him, but this reunion isn’t set to go smoothly. The doors to the tower fly open and Pepito’s wife barely has time to cram the hat back on his head before her father the magician comes storming out. It turns into a bit of a farce – the magician running all over the yard, trying to lay hands on Pepito, sending gusts of wind to pry at his magic hat, all without success. At last the magician gives up. “You can take your wife,” he declares, “if by tomorrow morning you have thrown down this mountain and made a flower garden of it.”

Pepito has no chance. Pepito’s wife does. She has him throw a tile in the tower well, and at once a small army of workmen rise out of it to start pulling apart the mountain. Sure enough, by morning the towers stand in a field of flowers.

That’s not enough for the cursed girl’s parents. The witch comes bursting forth next, riding an extremely unhappy dragoness, to help her husband catch Pepito. He can’t elude both of them, so draws his sword of last resort and orders it to cut off both their heads. At once the two little pigeons turn into Pepito’s children and he has his family climb aboard the poplar to go home. “You can go home, too,” he suggests to the dragoness. She starts crying. Home for her was the well in the yard, and it’s horrible down there. “Would you like to have a handsome husband and live in a palace?” Pepito the matchmaker enquires. It doesn’t take much effort to convince the dragoness, and the whole lot of them return to the dragon’s valley together.

He’s waiting there miserably for Pepito to return. At the sight of his friend, he bounds over, hoping this time he’s back for good – which he’s not. But then the two dragons are introduced, and it’s love at first sight. As Pepito and his family fly away, they look back and see the dragon and dragoness dancing through the flowery valley to their own happily ever after.

Story 3: Yanni

In this Macedonian fairy tale (also from A Book of Dragons), a boy called Yanni is on his way to visit his sweetheart when a dragon jumps out at him from behind a fountain and explains his new title is ‘dinner’. “If your dinner I must be,” Yanni bargains, “let me first say goodbye to my dear little sweetheart!” The dragon consents.

Yanni arrives at the girl’s house in a state of understandable depression. When he tells her what’s happened, she insists on accompanying him back to the fountain. The dragon is delighted at the sight of them (“My dinner comes double!”), but the girl has a plan. “Go on and fear not,” she tells Yanni. “I have eaten nine dragons for breakfast – I will now eat the tenth one!”

She’s terribly convincing. The dragon edges nervously back. “Pray tell me, friend Yanni,” he says, “whose daughter is that one?” The girl steps in front of her lover. “I am the daughter of Lightning,” she declares, “grand-daughter of Thunder. Move aside, Yanni. I will flash with my lightning, I will crash with my thunder! I will eat this small dragon!”

The dragon flies away as fast as he can and never comes back.

Story 4: Damian and the Dragon

This Greek story comes from a different Manning-Sanders anthology, also entitled Damian and the Dragon. It starts with a king, who has three sons and one daughter. One morning he asks each of his sons to tell him their dreams from the night before, because these will reveal their true selves. The elder two princes dream of possessing great estates, or at least are smart enough to say they do, so their father grants them large chunks of the kingdom. The youngest prince, Damian, doesn’t want to admit to his dream at all, but when pressed, admits in his dream his father brought his washing water and his mother a towel, like servants. The king is furious. Though Damian tries to explain it’s only a dream and not what he really believes, he’s sent on a walk in the woods with the royal executioner, and it’s plain he’s not intended to come back.

The executioner doesn’t have the heart to go through with it. He confesses the plan. Damian comes up with a compromise; he has the executioner cut off his finger and stain his shirt with the blood, to take to the king as evidence of his ‘death’. He then walks away from everything, all because of a stupid dream.

For six months he lives as a beggar. At last he comes to a large castle, where he hopes there may be work. No one answers his knocks, so he walks into the courtyard – and sees a dragon coming in at the same time, driving a flock of sheep. Damian quickly hides behind a pillar. He needn’t have worried; the dragon has no eyes to see him with.

When the dragon starts milking the sheep, Damian sneaks over to drink some. Later, he watches the dragon settle in the great hall of the castle with a pipe and decides to adopt him. Seriously, he comes over and introduces himself as his son.

The dragon is surprised, but not displeased. As he can’t see, Damian’s presence is actually very useful. The prince turns housekeeper, cleaning the long-disused chambers of the castle, bringing in wood, even scouring the milk pail. He makes an excellent son and the dragon, providing square meals and a supportive attitude, makes an excellent dad.

One day, while the dragon is out tending the sheep, Damian finds a flute forgotten on a shelf. When he plays it, all the furniture begins to dance. Even the castle begins to waltz around him. The dragon returns home puffing, having been obliged to dance as well. Damian conscientiously offers to tend the sheep the next day and the dragon agrees, on one condition: he must not go near the green hill with the little house on top. Witch-maidens live there, and they collect eyes. That’s how the dragon lost his.

Damian promises obediently to avoid the hill, and of course the moment he’s out of the castle that’s exactly where he goes. The witch sisters who live there see him coming and immediately covet his bright eyes – but before they can catch him, Damian starts playing the flute. The witch-maidens are forced to dance along with everything else. One nearly gets hold of Damian, but he seizes her hair and ties it to a branch instead. The second witch makes a desperate leap – but no, he catches her and ties her up the same way.

“Restore my father’s eyes,” he commands. The sisters tell him the eyes are in a box on their mantleshelf, in the shape of two apples, but are guarded by a pair of imps. Damian must greet them with a cry of ‘Chuck! Chuck’ – by no means ‘Bo!’ – and cuddle them so they’ll let him pass. He doesn’t trust a word of their instructions, and cries ‘Bo!’ instead. The imps fall in the fire with shock and puff out of existence. That leaves Damian to take the apples unimpeded. The witches call for him to let them down, but he insists on restoring the dragon’s eyes before going near them again.

That evening he convinces the dragon to eat both apples and two golden eyes appear in his head. The first thing the dragon does is hug Damian; the second, to go vapourise the witches. When he comes back he gives Damian a ring of keys, and tells him that anything he fancies in the castle is now his. Damian finds whole rooms of gold and silver, heaps of precious stones, all kinds of treasure – but has no use for any of it. At last he takes a few gemstones, a beautiful suit of silver clothes, a rather impressive sword and a suit of armour. He’s on his way back to the dragon when he notices one more door, to which he has no key.

The dragon is very reluctant to let him in. First he pretends the key is lost, then he tells the prince that if he enters the room, he’ll never come back. Seeing how upset his adoptive father is, Damian tries to forget the door, but can’t get it out of his head. Eventually the dragon caves and gives him a tiny key. “Unlock that door if you must,” he says, “but remember that wherever you go my love goes with you.” Dragon dads are the best dads.

Damian is puzzled by this attitude. He only intends to take a quick look. On the other side of the door is a stable, and in that is a silvery mare. “So, my prince,” she exclaims, “you have come at last! We must be away faster than the wind!” The king, it turns out, has made another huge blunder. He’s announced that whatever man can leap across the great marsh behind the palace may marry Damian’s only sister – and a great many men have tried. The neighbouring kingdoms are up in arms to avenge their drowned sons. Damian may know his father’s faults firsthand, but he doesn’t want him to die. Jumping on the mare’s back, he returns home with whirlwind speed.

That’s not enough for the mare. She insists he buy a bladder from a butcher’s shop and put it over his head so it looks like he’s bald, then cover her up in the hide of a dead horse. Next, she has him buy ragged clothes to replace his silver suit. They are going to leap the marsh and mustn’t be recognised. Damian thinks that’s a terrible idea – he’s the last person who wants to win his sister’s hand – but the mare is determined and he reluctantly goes along with her plan.

The king is in a dreadful temper. He’s sick of watching suitors drown but too stubborn to change his own criteria. He doesn’t recognise his son, who is admittedly very well disguised, and is appalled when this ‘bald beggar’ manages what no one else could. “Whoever calls that fellow my son-in-law shall have his head cut off!” he shouts, but the whole crowd around the marsh is saying it and so he stumps furiously back home to punish the princess instead, because he can. She’s shut in the stable on a diet of bread and water. The queen, though, has a comfortable bed and a good meal sent down, so that’s all right.

Basically the no.1 rule for survival in this family is don’t tell the king.

Being in a murderous state of mind, the king heads defiantly off to war, despite being badly outnumbered. On the way Damian falls deliberately into a ditch to embarrass him. The moment the rest of the army has passed by, he jumps out again, whips off his disguise and races to the battlefield in shining armour to save the day. Well, save his father’s day. The opposing armies are beaten back and the silvery mare leaps into the clouds, making the king believe it was an angel sent by God to save him. Have I mentioned he has a bit of an ego?

That night Damian breaks into the stable to visit his sister. She’s thrilled to see him and laughs at his story. Overhearing, the king mistakes this for unbecoming hijinks and wants to execute her on the spot. His wife seizes his arm, panicked. “In heaven’s name, what are you about?” she cries. “Perhaps the poor girl is only laughing for grief!”

Um. Your excuses could do with some work, honey. The king settles for sending out a maidservant to tell the princess to shut up, but the maid gets caught up in the excitement of the prince’s return and the noise from the stable only gets louder. The king, working himself into a towering rage, rushes out to kill the lot of them, only to see his saviour standing there in shining armour. He still doesn’t recognise Damian as his son. The prince refuses to come out, saying he’ll visit the palace tomorrow. In preparation, the king has every room adorned in gold and silver and a glorious feast laid out. During the banquet, he even brings Damian his washing water, and has the queen bring a towel.

Afterwards, Damian stands up, saying he wants to tell a story. The king orders that anyone who interrupts shall have their head chopped off, and actually calls the executioner over to stand ready. So Damian begins with three princes, and three dreams – and the king interrupts. At every juncture of the very familiar tale, he has exclamations and questions and the executioner doesn’t know quite what to do. When Damian reaches the part about the bloody shirt, he holds up his missing finger and turns to the executioner to thank him for his life.

The king hides under the table. How did this man ever end up RUNNING A COUNTRY?

But Damian is all “bygones!” and pulls him out. He doesn’t want the king to grovel, and he definitely doesn’t want the throne. He does insist on the executioner getting a dukedom. Things change for the better in the kingdom, because whenever the king is on the point of losing his temper all Damian needs to do is hold up his stump of a finger and his father is instantly quieted.

What about his other father, though? The dragon who was an actual decent parent? Nudged into remembering by the silver mare, Damian rides back to visit and finds the dragon crying while he milks the sheep. “Father!” Damian whispers, the way he did when they first met. “Here is your son.” Huge hugs ensue. And every full moon after that, Damian comes back to visit.

Some dragons are villains, some are just cowards, and yet others are heroes. Claws can be fearsome or beautiful – it all depends on who tells the story. The reason I started writing Fairy Tale Tuesdays in the first place was because the stories I knew were so much more complicated, and so much better, than the versions I was seeing told. Tradition is made from what we choose to remember, so next time you read a fairy tale, remember this. The princess is not always waiting for rescue; sometimes, she battles kings and witches and Destiny itself. The prince is not always a hero. Sometimes, he’s the one who needs saving. The stepmother isn’t always a villain, and the dragon doesn’t have to die.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.74 – Jekovoy

This week’s fairy tale is from the exasperatingly vague Hamlyn collection Legends from Eastern Lands and would appear to take place in a khanate far, far away. How far away? I don’t know. Which annoys me.

Anyway! The particular khan in this story is out riding one day with his beloved young son Jekovoy when they are set upon by a huge bear who snatches up the child and disappears into the forest. Despite the frantic searching of the khan and his men, Jekovoy is nowhere to be found. It seems very unlikely that he is still alive.

But in fairy tales unlikely things are basically normal life and in this case the bear has not only not eaten the kidnapped child, she’s bringing him up as her own. Jekovoy, in his turn, comes to think of her as his mother. One day when the khan returns to that part of the forest on a hunting trip, he sees the bear charging at him and gets in first with an arrow. While that’s an understandable reaction, Jekovoy doesn’t see it that way. Displaying astonishingly advanced language skills for a boy brought up by a bear, he denounces the khan as a murderer. You killed my mother! Prepare to die!

The khan, however, has a great comeback: Jekovoy, I am your father. Overwhelmed, Jekovoy lets himself be pulled into a paternal embrace. After he has buried his foster mother, he returns with the khan to the palace for a celebratory feast, but he is horribly confused by the whole situation and ends up escaping back to the forest to mourn over the bear’s grave. “Oh Mother!” he exclaims aloud, “how can I avenge your death?”

Unbeknownst to him, the khan’s spies were listening in. A messenger returns to the palace with the news that Jekovoy is plotting revenge. Alarmed, the khan sends back instructions that his son is to go chop down wood for the defences of his town, the real intent being for Jekovoy to be ripped apart by wild animals. That is not what I would describe as paternal.

This plan has a fatal flaw. Jekovoy gets on brilliantly with the wild animals, in fact they come over to help him rebuild the palisade. Unfortunately, the khan assumes this is an invading army and quickly calls together his viziers. Their advice is to send Jekovoy off on another potential suicide mission. If he recaptures the town of Chimkent from the khan’s enemies, all to the good; if he dies in the attempt, that’s a bonus! Relieved, the khan places the challenge before his son, who accepts. Jekovoy also refuses to take any of the khan’s men with him to join the fight, asking instead for a sword weighing seventy thousand stone and an iron club weighing sixteen thousand stone. That’s no small request, but anything to get him away from the palace is fine by the khan, so the ridiculously immoveable weapons are made and Jekovoy handles both with ease. Heroes are like that.

Eighty thousand warriors are guarding the walls of Chimkent. Jekovoy lays waste to the lot of them with the power of his voice alone. He then strides inside and tells the citizens he’s now in charge, which they do not dispute for obvious reasons. Actually, he’s a pretty great khan. His taxes are fair, his laws are not oppressive, and he cares about social justice. Well done, mama bear, you raised your boy well!

Far from being proud of Jekovoy’s achievements, however, his father is furious. “My son proved a thorn in my flesh before,” he tells his viziers, “and now he has set up a rival khanate. This is a threat to my authority that must not go unchallenged.” The viziers, who know their boss doesn’t give a damn about social justice, quickly come up with another solution. Suicide mission no.3: go into the mountains and bring back two giants on a leash. Why does the khan need two giants on a leash? DON’T ASK QUESTIONS.

Jekovoy doesn’t ask questions, he’s not that kind of a person; he gets ready to leave immediately. The people of Chimkent try to convince him this is a bad idea, pointing out that if he leaves they will only be invaded all over again by someone a lot fonder of taxes. “The minute I hear of any attack on Chimkent,” he promises, “I will return and crush the enemy to dust.” Or, you know, shout at them. Either’s good.

He then sets off for the mountains. On his way he meets a giant called Tash, who as it turns out is off to Chimkent. His plan, he tells Jekovoy, is to seize the city from its bleeding-heart boyo of a ruler. Jekovoy challenges Tash to a contest of strength, to prove he’s worthy of taking the town; then he grabs the giant and throws him across seven hilltops, just to make his point clear. That’s the easy bit. Finding the giant again is trickier. He tracks him down at last and is there when Tash wakes up, to inquire whether he’s still interested in Chimkent. Panicked, Tash kisses his hand and vows to take up cooking instead.

With one giant now in his service, Jekovoy goes looking for the other one, and finds him juggling plane trees. This giant is called Kheers and he’s also headed for Chimkent, intending to apply his hefty clubs to its weedy youth of a khan. Jekovoy smiles. Next thing Kheers knows, he’s being juggled with the trees. By the time Jekovoy lets him go, the giant is only too happy to stay away from Chimkent. He joins Jekovoy’s entourage and the trio travel on through the mountains.

One day they come to a small hamlet where seven witches are brewing up mutton stew on the village green. Jekovoy, the least judgy prince ever, greets them with scrupulous good manners. Mama bear, why did you not start up a royal daycare centre? The witches are pleased, but unwisely inform him that if he’d been rude they’d have eaten him up. Appalled at their wicked ways, Jekovoy whips out his club and beheads the lot of them.

The village, though, is rather nice and he decides to stay on for a few more days. The next morning, Kheers goes off with Jekovoy to check out the local scenery and Tash stays back at the campsite to cook lunch. A cauldron of soup is almost done when a tiny old man comes riding up on goatback to beg a bite and when Tash says yes, drinks the lot.

Tash cobbles a second batch together as best he can, but Jekovoy isn’t impressed and decides to stay behind the next day to do the cooking himself. When the little old man comes riding up for a second time, Jekovoy hurls a red hot boulder from the fire at him, and his head flies off – but unlike the witches, this doesn’t kill him. It only makes him really, really cross. Jekovoy snatches for the head, but it rolls down a hole in the ground and out of sight.

When the giants return, Jekovoy explains the situations and orders them to make a rope. Once that has been done, he gets Tash to climb down the hole, but Tash gets too scared to go on and has to be pulled back up. The same happens with Kheers. Exasperated, Jekovoy goes down himself. The rope is not quite long enough, so he jumps the rest of the way, and is of course completely uninjured. The first thing he sees at the bottom of the hole is a beautiful girl sitting in an iron cage. When she opens her eyes, daylight floods the cave. When she closes them again, night falls. Now that’s an original take on ‘the light of my life’.

Jekovoy is struck wordless with admiration. The girl opens her eyes again to study him and decides, quite kindly, that he is an idiot. “Birds enter here and scorch their wings,” she tells him. “If humans enter, they burn their limbs. I pity you!” The cavern, she explains, belongs to the evil sorcerer Razgoon and is guarded by seventy thousand bloodthirsty jinns. For every drop of their blood that is spilled, they double in number. The girl’s advice is that Jekovoy kill them all in their sleep, but he’s far too honourable and high-minded for that sort of thing, proving that she’s right: he is an idiot. More importantly, though, an idiot with a really impressive voice. His first shout brings down a small landslide; his second causes structural damage to the cave itself; his third brings about an outraged earthquake. The jinn, who are pretty rubbish guards, eventually get up to see what’s going on.

Talented though Jekovoy is, he’s simply not equipped for this sort of a fight. The battle drags on for days, but every time it seems he must at last lose the girl closes her eyes, casting the cavern into darkness and distracting the jinn. When his sword fails, Jekovoy brings out the club; he starts hammering djinn into the ground like nails. Seven days later, he beats Razgoon’s head right down through the stone bedrock and the battle is won. The girl in the cage opens her eyes, flooding the cavern in daylight. “Release me from my prison, noble youth!”

After defeating demons unnumbered, a cage is no trouble. The girl takes Jekovoy’s hand and leads him into Razgoon’s magnificent treasure room, the contents of which may as well now be his. Tash and Kheers pull it up sack by sack until only Jekovoy and the girl are left. An admirably cynical individual, she advises Jekovoy tie the rope around them both and have them hauled up at the same time, but Jekovoy dismisses her fears. That proves to be a terrible idea. The girl is pulled safely to the surface; the rope is cut while Jekovoy is only halfway up. He falls hard and is knocked unconscious.

Days later, he wakes and finds a passage to the surface. He searches the wilderness for the giants and the girl they have doubtless abducted, but in vain – all he finds is a town in the middle of nowhere where a man is doing his best to bury himself. Jekovoy, bewildered, asks him why. The answer is that a dragon has come to town and everybody is bunkering down to hide. That’s challenge enough for Jekovoy, who sets off like the dyed in the wool hero that he is to face down a dragon. Drawing his sword, he sets about chopping the poor beast into pieces. I’m sure it does his ego the world of good.

It was terrorising the town, though, and the villagers are all very pleased to see it gone. They invite Jekovoy to stay, recognising a useful neighbour when they see one, but he refuses very politely and resumes his search. The next place of note he comes to is the sea of Issyk-Kul, where the waters boil and another dragon is threatening the lives of children…the mythical bird Seemourg’s children, who are both the size of full-grown camels, but definitely children nonetheless and Jekovoy’s having none of it. He whips out his bow and brings down the dragon with a single arrow. Then he chops up the felled beast and climbs to Seemourg’s nest to feed her babies their enemy’s flesh. Which is WEIRD, but they like it.

While Jekovoy is occupied, Seemourg returns to the nest. Her children conceal Jekovoy under their wings, trying to deny his existence; when their mum remains unconvinced, they risk explaining who he really is. Seemourg is not much fond of human beings as anything except lunch, but the dragon has devoured many of her children and she is so glad to see it dead that she promises to grant Jekovoy any wish she can. All he wants is a lift back to Chimkent. He’s pretty sure he knows where the giants went.

Sure enough, there they are, living it up as fabulously wealthy khans while the people around them starve. The girl Jekovoy saved in Razgoon’s cavern has been caged once more, having refused to marry either giant, because they are creeps. Jekovoy handles the situation by shooting Tash straight through the heart. Kheers tries to retaliate by throwing his club, but Seemourg swallows the thing in midair like a worm; when the giant tries to run, he is felled by a second arrow. Jekovoy is greeted with joy by his constituents, and by the girl, whom he frees all over again. This time he asks her to marry him, and she says yes, because Jekovoy is not a creep.

The wedding ceremony is not quite over when a messenger from Jekovoy’s father comes riding into town. The khan’s town is in trouble. He needs a hero, and is calling on the only one he knows. Jekovoy has no illusions about the kind of man his father is, but because the people of the town are suffering he goes to banish their enemies and naturally succeeds in about ten seconds flat. Panic and gratitude bring about a change of heart with the khan, who begs Jekovoy to stay and be his successor. Jekovoy says no. He returns to his bride and to Chimkent, the town he made his own, where he rules wisely, generously, and above all, intelligently until the end of his days.

A hero of the story who is genuinely heroic! Who is polite to everyone, including people who are NOT exceptionally beautiful! A girl for whom the term ‘beautiful as the sun’ is not even a metaphor! There is much to enjoy in this fairy tale. If anyone can tell me what country it is originally from, I’d love to know.

Review No.125 – Temeraire

Temeraire – Naomi Novak

HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006

As Napoleon’s forces advance relentlessly across Europe, the difference between invasion and resistance may lie in a chance discovery at sea. A British ship captures a damaged French frigate and in its hold Captain Will Laurence uncovers a prize more valuable than the ship itself: an unhatched dragon’s egg. For this is a war fought from both sea and sky. Any new dragon is the greatest of assets to embattled Britain, but a hatchling chooses its own handler and will take orders from no other. When the newborn dragon ignores its offered candidate and chooses Captain Laurence instead, his life – and the tide of the war – will be changed forever.

Temeraire (also known by the title His Majesty’s Dragon) is an alternative history of the Napoleonic wars in which dragons battle for the skies over the Channel, and is written with such painstaking attention to detail that I was immediately immersed in Novak’s wonderfully rich world. Her writing feels as if it could have come from the period itself, and the dragons are gloriously believable. The Temeraire series continues with Throne of Jade.

Review No.118 – Talon

Talon – Janet Lee Carey

Faber and Faber, 2007

Rosalind is torn between the promise of a prophecy and the shame of a curse – she is the princess prophesied to bring peace and glory to her long-estranged branch of the Pendragon dynasty, yet all her life has been bound by the secret of a terrible birthmark that would see her burned as a witch were it ever to become known. As the ambitions of her mother become ever more unyielding and her future increasingly uncertain, Rosalind becomes determined to shed her curse. But the words of prophecies are never quite what they seem…

This book was something of a mystery. Neither my library’s catalogue nor Goodreads had a single summary or review of it, so my only preconception was formed from the blurb, which was very misleading and gave away half the plot. The book was written in a medieval style that was reasonably consistent, with some interesting ideas and a very complicated, intriguing character in Rosalind’s mother. It did feel very aimless though – I didn’t feel like it really got moving until two thirds of the way through – and the love story was completely unconvincing. It would have been improved by more dragons. This review will be cross-posted at Goodreads, so next time someone goes looking they’ll have an answer.

UPDATE: Well, that’s peculiar – last time I checked there were no reviews, now there are a few hundred odd. Either the universe is messing with me or there was something very wrong with my access to Goodreads at the time. I’m posting the review anyway and hope it is not similarly devoured.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.54 – The Prince with the Golden Hand

I misremembered the title of this one, from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Book of Dragons, and was disappointed to discover it wasn’t a princess who had the titular golden hand after all. What she does have is golden hair, which just isn’t the same. Her parents, following a long tradition of bad decisions, keep her cloistered away from the world until they decide it’s time to marry her off. Let’s have a quick think about how overwhelming an expectation that would be for an enforced introvert, shall we? At least they let her choose from the gathering of suitors. And her choice is…get the hell out of here.

“I will choose tomorrow,” she tells her father. “But give me this one day of freedom. Now that I am so soon to be married, surely I am old enough to run and play in the garden by myself?” Call ’em on it, lady! The king agrees and she runs into the garden alone. This is probably the most exciting experience of her life to date, so of course a dragon has to come swooping by and wreck everything by kidnapping her.

The king sends out his heralds to alert the potential heroes of the land to the situation, offering the usual reward of marriage and half a kingdom to whoever proves successful. Two of the resulting applicants are brothers, the sons of a neighbouring king. They travel for two years, coming in time to wild country, where a mountain stands in their way. Leaving their horses behind, they climb it on foot. At the very top is a silver palace, balanced (quite precariously, I should think) on a cock’s foot. At one of its windows sits a girl with hair so brightly golden it glitters in the sun.

The princess is found! The end of their quest in sight, the brothers begin to run uphill, but their approach has not gone unnoticed. The silver palace begins to spin, conjuring up a ferocious wind. No sooner have the brothers regained their feet from that, than a savage cold descends and freezes them where they stand. Their bodies are soon buried by snow.

For years their parents wait for news. At the end of three years, the king stops hoping his sons will ever come home, but the queen is dogged. She questions every traveller who comes their way, even after the princes’ horses make their own way back without their masters. One day a holy man stops at the palace and, when she asks him as she has all the other travellers, to pray for her boys, he tells her they are dead. “But you shall have another son,” he adds, “the like of which the world has ever seen.”

And he’s right. The queen’s third child is born – surprise! – with a hand of gold, and is so precocious that three days after his birth he jumps out of his cradle and demands to know what’s making his mum so sad. She explains about his lost brothers, and he immediately resolves to save them. You know how some people swear you can do anything with enough willpower? This prince is in with that. He grows so fast that by the end of a month he’s a young man, trained to ride a horse and wield a sword. He also grows pure golden hair and a moustache to match, but instead of being shut away for safekeeping, he’s permitted to ride off in search of his lost, presumed dead brothers.

At length he comes to a field of poppies. On the far side of the field is a cottage balanced on a cock’s foot – ah yes, I said a cottage, not a castle! – all tangled up in briars. The smell of the poppies almost sends the prince to sleep, but he rides on until he comes to the cottage, and he orders it to turn around and open up so he can get in. He does it so authoritatively that the cottage obeys him. Inside is an ancient woman at work with a spindle, flanked by two beautiful girls respectively weaving and embroidering. Having exchanged greetings, the prince proceeds to explain his quest to them, and ask if they can help him find the dragon.

“If you take my advice, you won’t look for him,” the old woman says firmly. “I have not been out of this cottage for a hundred years for fear he would carry me off. Eh dear! I was a pretty girl a hundred years ago!” Which is heartbreaking, not to mention the logical extension of a society in which beautiful women are snatched and stolen like hoarded treasure. That’s not the prince’s problem, though; his answer is that the dragon won’t want to carry him off, he’s not pretty enough. How very modest. And ridiculous. The old woman strikes a bargain with him, her expert advice in exchange for a promise. It turns out that there are four wells in the dragon’s house – the Waters of Heroism, Revival, Resoration and Youth – and she wants a drink of the latter, which  seems only fair as it was the threat of the dragon that stole the best years of her life.

The prince agrees to the terms. In exchange he is given a pincushion. Not just any pincushion! When he throws it in front of him it will lead him to the dragon’s mountain, which is where the prince will meet his real obstacles – the dragon’s parents. In defence against his mother, the blazing South Wind, the old woman gives a flagon of restorative drink; in defence against his father, the icy North Wind, she gives a protective hood. The prince thanks her politely and sets off in pursuit of the pincushion, which can fly.

In time he comes to the dragon’s mountain, where he faces the same bitter cold as the first two princes, but the hood protects him. As he climbs he comes across a small mound in the snow, and uncovers the bodies of his brothers. It’s a strange moment for him, who never knew them, and he stops to say a prayer over them, but the pincushion gives him no time for that – onward it flies, and onward he goes, into the path of a scorching wind the kills every other living thing on the mountain. The old woman’s drink gives the prince the strength to keep going. As he sets foot on the very top of the mountain, the pincushion jumps into his pocket and goes still; this, apparently, is all the guidance he’s getting.

In front of him lies the silver palace, at one of its windows the glittering hair of the princess who has been held captive all this time by narrative irony. Unfortunately, there’s a chasm in the way. The prince, though, as you may recall, has a way with houses like this, and orders the palace to turn around and open up for him. It twists obediently on the spot, bridging the chasm. The prince strides inside.

He finds himself in a hall of mirrors. In every one is a reflection of a running girl with glittering hair, all whirling around him, until suddenly the real one catches his arm. The princess, very nobly, tries to make him leave before the dragon returns. The prince, also nobly, refuses. The old woman’s flagon being emptied, though, he asks for a drink. The princess gives him water from the Heroic Well, and…you know, some people would think being born with a hand of gold and growing up within the space of one month was enough crazy for anyone to deal with, but now he’s Superprince with epic powers that include accidentally breaking chairs by sitting on them too hard.

He’s gone through two already when the palace begins to spin wildly and the dragon himself bursts in, riding a winged horse. Because he’s not exactly your ordinary dragon: he has the legs of a tiger, the talons of an eagle and a snake for a tail, which must be terribly confusing. He does, however, breathe fire. He leaps at the prince with a roar of rage, but is caught by the golden heroic hand and smashed through a wall. This is totally a superhero movie now.

The prince throttles the dragon to death. Then, calmly, he goes about filling three bottles from the wells of Revival, Restoration and Youth. Killing the dragon is only one item on his to-do list – no.2 is rescuing the princess, riding away with her on the winged horse, and no.3 is returning to the bodies of his brothers on the way down the mountain. He revives and restores them, and swings them up onto the extraordinary winged horse to ride off and fulfil item no.4 – making good on his promise.

The old woman is still spinning, but abandons her work straight away when she sees the prince at her door. He gives her the water from the well of Youth and she seizes it, tossing it back over herself. It turns her into the beautiful girl she once was, before a dragon drove her into hiding, and she is so delighted with the results that she offers the prince a reward. He can’t think of one; all he really wants to do is marry his glittering princess. His brothers come up with their own ideas – they want to marry the old woman’s handmaidens. “Well,” the erstwhile old woman shrugs, “take them! By their smiles I can see they are willing. And now that I am young again, I can’t be bothered with grown-up daughters. So now I will wish you good-day!”

And that’s it, really, she just walks out to start her new life, leaving her daughters to join the others on the back of the one winged horse (how is there SPACE?) for the return flight to the princess’s home. Her parents have mourned her as dead for years and now suddenly she’s back, with her strange boyfriend, his back-from-the-dead brothers, and their insta-brides. But who cares! Weddings all around!

There’s only one problem left. The princess, who has, after all, had to defend herself against the advances of a dragon all this time, has made the vow that she won’t wed anyone who can’t answer her three riddles, and though the dragon is gone she must still honour her own terms. She asks each one, and each time the prince guesses the right answer, because these are things only another human could understand – her shadow, her bed, her shoe. The final hurdle overcome, he sends the winged horse to bring his own parents to the triple wedding, fulfilling item no.5 – proving his mother’s fiercely defended hopes to be true.

I feel so terribly sorry for this princess. Her part in the story is a string of injustices that are never really rectified. Hopefully her prince is heroic enough to give any daughters they may have all the freedom they want. There’s so much glorious weirdness in this Slavic fairy tale, though – all the local architecture seemingly being balanced on bird feet, the old woman who dances off into the world to remake her life without fear, the sat-nav pincushion – that I like it anyway.

And if the prince and princess do have daughters, who will therefore be princesses too…maybe one of them will inherit a golden hand.