If I asked you to picture a dragon in your mind, what would it look like? It would probably have wings and breathe fire. It might also have scales and a long barbed tail. As for the rest of its body, though, it would just look… well, dragon-y, right?
If a winged and armoured reptile is the basic template for a dragon, its other physical characteristics can vary hugely. When I was younger I did some roleplaying, and my game-world of choice was that of the Dragonlance novels. In those books, you find a real menagerie of dragons. Different breeds come in different colours, and breathe out different things. So, you get the quintessential red fire-breathing dragon, but you also get white frost-breathing dragons and blue lightning-breathing dragons. Those different breeds vary in size and power, and live in different habitats.
There can also be more subtle differences. The second book in my Chronicles of the Exile series, Dragon Hunters, features sea dragons. A while back, I was sent four pencil sketches by Tor of the front cover illustration for the US edition. I liked them very much, but there were a few ways in which the sea dragons shown in the images differed from how I’d described them in the book. Most importantly, the length of the neck made the creatures look like they were more snake than dragon. But also the coverage of spikes and scales wasn’t quite right. I sent the artist a few passages from the book in which dragons featured, and the final version of the cover came out like this:
What about the temperament of dragons, though? Again, there are huge differences in fantasy literature. In Western cultures, the dragon has historically been regarded as a symbol of malevolence; in the East, a dragon is normally seen as a power for good. Then you have to consider the creatures’ intelligence. In some portrayals – like in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones – dragons are little more than animals; in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, however, Smaug is highly intelligent and capable of speech. He even has a distinct personality – and so he should do, since he is very much a character in the book. Such is his greed that he cannot tolerate the theft of even a single cup from his treasure horde. And he is sufficiently proud that Bilbo can trick him through flattery into rolling over, thus revealing a gap in his chest armour.
Is there anything, then, that all dragons have in common, aside from their reptilian form?
In my view, there is one thing that all dragons should share, and that is the ability to both enthral and terrify at the same time. Yes, a dragon is a magnificent creature… but it is magnificent in a “Is it going to have me for lunch?” kind of way. No one captures that elusive blend of wonder and danger better than Ursula Le Guin in The Earthsea Quartet. There’s a great moment in the third book, The Farthest Shore, where the main character Ged is asked what a dragonlord is. In reply he says: “Dragons have no masters. The question is always the same, with a dragon: will he talk with you or will he eat you? If you can count on his doing the former, and not doing the latter, why then you’re a dragonlord.”
Another thing that all dragons share is that no matter which story they appear in, they are always the apex predator. That was something I wanted to change in Dragon Hunters. I wanted the dragons to be not the hunters, but the hunted. Obviously, the idea of people hunting dragons is not a new one. That’s what knights do, isn’t it, when they’re not saving damsels in distress and putting dents in each other’s armour? But hunting dragons for sport? That is something I have never encountered before. So I decided that the action in Dragon Hunters should take place against the background of a Dragon Hunt. Once a year, the gate across a narrow waterway is raised to allow a dragon to pass through into an inland sea. There, it is hunted by a fellowship of powerful water-mages known as the Storm Lords. And what could possibly go wrong with an idea like that, right?
For the Storm Lords, the Hunt is a show of force. They hold in thrall a confederation of cities known as the Sabian League, and the spectacle of slaying a dragon each year is a reminder to their subjects of their power. The dragon doesn’t stand a chance. True, the creatures can grow to the size of ships and are covered in impenetrable metal scales. But every suit of armour has its weak spots, and the Storm Lords come armed with sorcerously imbued weapons to exploit them. They also have the advantage of numbers, because dozens of ships will converge on the dragon the moment the Hunt begins.
Faced with such odds, I wanted my dragons to be cunning. I wanted them to give as good as they got. So, in Dragon Hunters, the dragons are mindful of their weak spots, and take care to protect them, even as the Storm Lords try to target them. They will surface under a ship to tip it. They will smash oars to stop a target escaping. At one point a dragon is confronted by a crew shooting magical arrows and detonating barrels of sorcerously lightened air, so in response the dragon…
Well, to find out what happens next, you will just have to read the book!
Also on CR: Interview with Marc Turner
Marc Turner is the author of the epic fantasy series The Chronicles of the Exile. Book two, Dragon Hunters, is available now in the US from Tor Books and in the UK from Titan (cover above), and can be read even if you haven’t already read book one (shame on you). The first novel in the series, When the Heavens Fall, is also published by Tor Books in the US, and Titan in the UK (both covers below). You can find him at his website and on Twitter.