Harrowing the Dragon
by Patricia A. McKillip
Review by Drew Bittner
Ace Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0441014437
Date: 07 November, 2006 List Price $14.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Upon reading Harrowing the Dragon, it becomes clear: Patricia McKillip writes fairy tales for grown-ups. I don't mean that she includes large amounts of gratuitous violence or sex--far from it. Her heroes solve their problems by thinking more often than fighting. No, her sophistication lies in crafting stories that recall the ephemeral, delicate beauty of fairy tales, the dreamlike state that they induce in a reader, and then take it to the next level. "Happily ever after" is not common here; in truth, the endings are often ambiguous and sometimes invite the reader to speculate on the protagonists' ultimate fate.
In "The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath," written in 1982 (not long after publication of her Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy), a young hero seeks to free his island home of a frosty beast's tyranny--little reckoning how his erstwhile kinsmen may view his efforts. "The Fellowship of the Dragon" finds five young women (making the title somewhat ironic) setting out to rescue a bard and confronting diverse challenges along the way, all leading to a final decision on what the narrator must value most: her mission or her friends.
"Lady of the Skulls" offers a glimpse into the lonely tower of a young woman surrounded by treasures, whose visitors so far have only found death. And "Star-Crossed" provides an intriguing "what happened next" as authorities investigate the apparent murder of Romeo and Juliet.
Most of McKillip's work involves fantastic worlds, but there are a scattering of tales here that are set in the here and now, such as "The Snow Queen" and "The Witches of Junket," providing an interesting contrast with the larger body of her work.
The stories in Harrowing were written from 1982 to 1999. Some of McKillip's seemingly favorite themes--self-discovery through making difficult choices, finding magic woven into the most ordinary things--surface in new and absorbing fashion. Fans of fantasy will take to this collection with delight, but readers who enjoy brilliant prose would be well advised to seek out this book.