Part of the reason I began this project to chat about a short story a day was to give myself a carrot to dangle over the piles of collections and anthologies I’ve bought over the years where I’ve read some or a few of the stories (often the tales by people I know or authors I’ve already read and enjoyed) but never quite completed. I don’t feel guilt about unread books (buying the book supported the authors and that’s enough for me to feel I didn’t waste anything). But sometimes those anthologies were bought under different circumstances, and today’s book is one of those: a book I picked up from a second-hand bookshop while on vacation a few years ago, because I needed a pocketbook to carry around and read, and one I wouldn’t mind losing or if it got wet or whatever. Fast-forward to now, and I’m still half-way through Year’s Best Fantasy 4 (celebrating the best fantasy of 2003) and let’s talk about a dragon.
Michael Swanwick’s “dragon” is a technological beast in a fantastical world, and a town terrorized/ruled by said dragon, and is the story of young Will, who is forced to interface with the dragon (it involves needles and a cockpit and it’s borderline gruesome in places) while he desperately tries to figure out a path to freedom for himself and those he cares about (and the whole village, while he’s at it). The story itself walks a line between hopelessness and ingenuity as Will learns more about the dragon, about the more magical sides of things, and even works with the local seer/prophet to see if she can help. All the while, the dragon uses Will, hurting him and holding him hostage.
The resolution to Will’s dilemma is a great mix of fantasy and the strange technology that is the dragon, alongside cleverness, a sacrifice of power (willingly and from someone else, no less), and the moment of triumph is a great moment indeed. And it is only a moment, as the story is told in a “let me tell you about…” way, and ends with, of course, learning that a big big evil shows up a little later, “but that’s another story.” Despite that kinda/sorta non-ending, “King Dragon” was just such a strange mix of magic and technology that I forgave it the brief victory.