And Then I Read: FIRE, TALES OF ELEMENTAL SPIRITS by Robin McKinley & Peter Dickinson

I’ve enjoyed the fantasy fiction of both these authors for many years. They married in 1991 and did two of these anthologies together. This one has three stories by Dickinson and two by McKinley, but one of hers fills about a third of the book.

First is “Phoenix” by Dickinson. Ellie is on a picnic with her family in the English countryside, and is rescued on the edge of a private woods preserve from thieves by a boy, Dave, who invites her to enter the wood and meet his elderly lady friend Welly, who lives there. Dave and Welly are caretakers of the preserve, and are as much in love with trees, animals and nature as she is. In time, she becomes their helper, and eventually learns their deepest secret. They have a (or the) Phoenix living in the wood with them. It has done so for over 100 years. The rest of Dave and Welly’s story is equally amazing, and Ellie is asked to take part in an ancient ritual to allow it to continue.

Next is McKinley’s “Hellhound.” Miri and her family run a riding stable adjacent to a cemetery with a bad reputation. When Miri adopts a dog with unusual red eyes she names Flame, she jokingly calls him a hellhound. It turns out she’s not far wrong. Flame has perfect manners, but he does not like the graveyard and what unseen things may be there. When Miri’s brother and his girlfriend don’t return in time from a trail ride in that direction, Miri and Flame are off to find out why. The answer is horrible, leading to a battle in the spirit world.

“Fireworm” by Dickinson is about an ancient pre-historic people in an ice age beset by a fiery salamander from deep inside the earth who attacks their camp. Tandin, one of them who is not well thought of by his people, finds he has the power to enter the spirit world and follow the salamander there, leading to a plan that he hopes will destroy the creature and save his people.

“Salamander Man” is another Dickinson story about the fiery elemental creatures. In this one, Tib is the slave/helper of a seller of magical trinkets and charms in the medieval town of Haballun. A wizard customer recognizes powers in Tib he doesn’t know about himself, and he buys the boy, beginning a strange journey in which Tib gathers the powers of the salamanders, growing to the size of a giant.

“First Flight” by McKinley is the longest story, almost a novel itself. It’s about dragons who are partnered with human riders for combat and transportation, along the lines of Ann McCaffrey’s Pern novels. Ern is the third son of a working class family in a small village. His older brother Dag has gone to learn to be a dragon rider, the second boy is learning to be a Seer. Ern has found his own personal calling as a healer, but healing is a skill which is looked down on in his village, and Ern has to hide his talent for it. Meanwhile, he’s found a young animal, a foogit, doglike but related to the dragons somehow. Sippy had a broken leg when he found it, and Ern mended it to the best of his ability, but in the end he brought it to Ralas, their local witch/wizard. Ralas becomes Ern’s friend and teaches him many things about healing. The story takes a turn when Dag comes home angry and depressed. He’s been paired with an older dragon who has only two eyes instead of the usual three, one was lost in combat. This makes Hereyta unable to make the long-distance flights through another dimension that her breed is known for. Despite that, Dag and Hereyta have been commanded to fly with the rest of Dag’s class before the entire dragon school. Ralas suggests that Ern and Sippy go with him for this graduation event, and when they all arrive at the dragon school things get even more interesting, and Ern and Sippy find new importance.

This is a fine book. I’m not a fan of anthologies generally, but I liked this one a lot. Recommended.

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