Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits

firetalesAuthors: Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Genre: YA Fantasy – Short stories
Pages: 304
Call number: Y McKinley (new YA fiction section)

I have a special love for books of short stories: I’m a huge fan of the form, but I’m sometimes daunted by the sheer number of stories in many of the thematic and “best of” collections. Somehow reading 26 short stories in one book feels longer then reading a novel of the same length. So, I enjoy collections like this one, where there are only five stories to read and they’re all by the same author (or, in this case, two authors).

This is the follow-up to McKinley’s and Dickinson’s first collaborative collection, Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits (Y McKinley). Dickinson’s three stories – “Phoenix”; “Fireworm”; and “Salamander Man” – are written with a storyteller’s rhythm, giving them the feel of legends. The word “old-fashioned” keeps coming to mind, but it isn’t really the right one – maybe “timeless” is better because it doesn’t have the negative connotations. As a nice contrast, McKinley’s stories – “Hellhound” and “First Flight” – are modern and humorous; they don’t feel weighty, like Dickinson’s, but they’re not frivolous. “Hellhound” takes place in the present day, so a modern-sounding narrator makes sense, but even the narrator in the pure fantasy story “First Flight” has a more every day, contemporary voice. I think this is why I liked McKinley’s stories so much better then Dickinson’s, even though all the stories are well-written; it’s all about tone.

“Phoenix” is about the mythical Egyptian bird-god of legend and how it survived – and found new believers – in a snowy, wooded conservation area. The narrator, a boy named Dave, tells the story to young Ellie when she visits the woods, about how he found the god in a fire at the age of 100 and, after rescuing it, has been living backward ever since. It’s an interesting concept but I got bored reading the story – there’s no action, and the story is mostly internal reflection, as the boy recounts his past with nostalgia and a kind of bittersweet acceptance of the passage of time.

I liked “Fireworm” and “Salamandar Man” better. In “Fireworm”, Tandin finally finds his place in his primitive community when he learns he has the power to destroy his people’s ancient enemy, the fireworm, but in the process he comes to identify with the fireworm more then with the humans he lives with. Killing the fireworm in this context is more tragedy then triumph. This notion of looking outside ourselves to recognize commonalities in an alien species – to empathize – is what made this story my favorite. It’s a hero fantasy with a hero who realizes that, seen another way, he’s also a villain.

In “Salamander Man,” the slave boy Tib also finds his destiny — to become the giant Salamander Man long enough to free 27 salamanders from corrupt magicians who are using them for their power. In doing this, he essentially strips the entire town of magic. Even though I just said I liked this story better then “Phoenix”, I don’t remember it well. Just that it was kind of strange but very well-written.

I really did like McKinley’s stories a lot. In “Hellhound,” Miri, who lives on a farm and works primarily with horses, adopts an unusual dog from the pound with burning red eyes. She names him Flame, and he proves to be much smarter than the average dog. Freakishly so. Others are wary around this creature, but Miri trusts him and he proves to be a blessing when her brother falls prey to an evil spirit residing in the nearby graveyard. Miri is instantly likable in her comfortable relationship with her family, her love for animals, and her willingness to look beyond Flame’s frightening appearance.

McKinley’s stand-out concluding novella, “First Flight,” follows Ern, a humble boy who wishes secretly to be a healer, despite the fact that healers are basically shunned as the lowest of the low in society (no one admits to going to a healer when ill or injured, because no one is supposed to admit to being ill or injured – a nice change to the way healers are usually portrayed). Ern has an uncanny skill with herb medicine and healing, but he’s spent so much of his life playing down his abilities that he can’t recognize the large amount of good he does for everyone around him. Ern’s brother, Dag, is going to Dragon Academy to be a dragon rider, but the dragon he’s paired with is injured and unable to make the First Flight (when the new rider and the dragon enter Firespace together for the first time). Despite the fact that everyone knows his dragon can’t do it, Dag will be forced to try and fail in front of everyone. Ern accompanies him to Dragon Academy as moral support, bringing along his strange pet foogit (who has a large, hilarious role to play in this story), but in his unassuming, nigh-invisible way, he manages to do something everyone thought was impossible. This story is one of the best I’ve read and is worth the price of the book alone. Ern’s witty, understated sense of humor and keen observations make his narrative a joy to read, and he’s about as large-hearted a character as one could find. I would like her to continue this story.

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