The Anomalous Archive, Part XV: 'A Dragon's Freedom' by Carin Marais

[This review was originally posted on the Anomaly forum on November 22, 2010.]

"A Dragon's Freedom," 3rd in Issue 5 of The Cross and the Cosmos  

Several of the stories in the five published issues of The Cross and the Cosmos have demonstrated the ability of my all-time favorite genre to present the core of an epic story line set in the background of the fantasy world imagined by the author. “Ley of the Minstrel” from Issue 2, “Sunset Over Gunther” from Issue 3, and “The Quest” from Issue 4 have surprised me in this regard. Before I started reading the short stories produced by the Christian speculative fiction community, I assumed that the massive amount of worldbuilding that goes into high fantasy (and also much science fiction) would make the traditional epic plot devices far beyond the scope of the limited number of words that a short story has at its disposal. I had thought that the most a short story in the high fantasy genre could accomplish would be a simple scene with only one conflict, which would strive only to illustrate a few characteristics of the imaginary world.

If the stories from the previous issues have challenged my doubt about the ability of the short story to tackle epic fantasy plotlines, “A Dragon’s Freedom” by Carin Marais has solidly proved my thinking wrong. Right away, the short story opens up with a fairly dramatic scene in an immersive world that quickly develops into the highest level of fantasy intrigue. The story is composed of a number of fragmented scenes spanning a long range of time, as I suppose all such ambitious short stories must be by necessity. Although this style makes the short story feel more novel-like, and the plot line was nearly ambitious enough for a high fantasy novel, this story does not seem as much like a miniaturized novel as some others have. I am not entirely sure why I get this feeling (or lack of a feeling), but perhaps it has something to do with the strong unity of each scene. For the most part, the scenes are intense and focused, each revealing something about the imaginary world. However, later in the story a scene leaves a little too much to the reader to fill in about the “behind the scenes” actions of the characters, making confusion possible.

The writing style is appropriate for the high fantasy genre. It is somewhat elevated without being pretentious or artificially Victorian. In some places, the prose has problems with clarity and could have been more refined to eliminate inconsistencies and clich├ęs. The greatest problem with the writing, and in my opinion with the story itself, is with the long scenes of dialog, where it is easy to get confused as to which character is saying which line. Not enough descriptive phrases and scentences are included in the dialog paragraphs to indicate the actions, gestures, voice inflections, and pauses of the characters. In general, however, the prose was a pleasure.

The characters are very well developed. The moral conflicts and regrets of the three important “good-guy” characters make something of a theme to the story, but I can’t quite say what specifically that theme is. Each of these characters is sympathetic and complex, while the antagonists are given enough time in the spotlight to serve their function well. It is interesting that there are also three “bad guys,” whether by chance or design, I don’t know. Even though I have a sense that this is a traditional and idealistic high fantasy, there is no knight in shining armor here. If we search ourselves deeply enough, we can all probably find common ground with these three good characters in the conflicts of duty versus self-preservation and of mercy versus vengeance.

The bigger conflict of the plot and the characters’ internal conflicts are rooted in the impressively deep worldbuilding. In the second paragraph, the geographical details of part of the imaginary world were so well-described that I longed to visualize their relationship by looking at a map! If a graphic map of the imaginary world of this story had been included in the PDF publication of the issue of The Cross and the Cosmos, it would have helped in following the plot. Many names from this imaginary world are presented throughout the narrative, probably more than enough to distract those who like imaginary worlds and imaginary names less than I do. Although I support the presentation of as much of the imaginary world as can be reasonably revealed through the plot, some of the names given in this story obviously refer to characters and places that have little direct relevance to this story, a mine waiting to be excavated by Carin Marais another time. It doesn’t hurt to leave some such names unexplained, because it makes the imaginary world seem more credible and real and excites the reader’s curiosity to learn more. However, there may have been too many unqualified fantasy names in this story, especially for readers whose favorite genre may not be high fantasy.

The worldbuilding also has some problem with originality, the common weakness of this genre. The standard old evil Empire that is used in many works is present here, and the corresponding association with dragons and dragon eggs suggests inspiration from Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series. Although originality is of course preferable, I don’t think of being derivative as a sin, or even as a major handicap. If I’m right in my guess about inspiration from Paolini, the Inheritance novels themselves are certainly far from the most original fantasies ever written!

Although I acknowledge the possibility that my love for the genre may have blinded me to some of this story’s weaker spots, I found “A Dragon’s Freedom” to be a refreshing and inspiring little read, just the thing to reignite my motivation during a painful semester. For that I thank its author, and the people of this community responsible for The Cross and the Cosmos.

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