Several years ago I purchased a book by Craig Shaw Gardner, and since then I have meant to at some point read some of his other books. On one of my recent trips to the library I found his The Dragon Circle trilogy and checked out the first book, Dragon Sleeping. I was surprised, however, by how difficult I found it to “get into” the story.
The typical elements of fantasy stories – wizards, dragons, talking animals, magic swords – do not show up in the first few chapters. Instead, there are just some ordinary people with ordinary problems, suddenly snatched out of their world and relocated in a strange world. There are frequent and unexpected shifts of reality in this new world, and these are initially as confusing to the reader as to the characters.
As I remembered having enjoyed the other book of Gardner’s I had read, however, I kept reading, and eventually began to find the book interesting enough to continue without pushing myself. (Ironically, I discovered as I began writing this post that I apparently never read the book by Gardner I referred to above, and was mixing it up with another book with a similar title that I had read and enjoyed.)
Almost as confusing as the shifts in reality – or what appears to be reality – is keeping track of who is currently the focus of the story. Lots of novels have as large a cast of characters, but most of the time the story is told from the perspective of only one person, or at most a handful of characters.
Gardner switches frequently from one character’s perspective to another, eventually including just about every character with a name – and the number of these rises over the course of the trilogy. In the second and third books, at least he includes a chart telling who is who – though by then I had finally managed to figure most of them out.
This means, of course, that he gets to explore a number of different attitudes toward the unique challenges that this world poses to the people who find themselves stuck there. There is the teenage boy who is filled with anger, and his father, who wants to have his own way and never have anyone tell him what to do. There is the man who has trouble making decisions, and the woman who loses touch with reality when it becomes too painful.
There are the wizards (at least one of whom was formerly an ordinary human; it’s not clear about the others), who become addicted to their magical powers. There is a boy who becomes magically linked to a (literally) bloodthirsty sword, and another who becomes close friends with a tree-man. There are characters who die, but then continue to have some kind of altered existence (after a while the reader begins to wonder if anyone truly dies in these books).
Some of the characters are well-developed enough that one really begins to care what happens to them. Others are more like caricatures, and it’s hard not to hope they will somehow be destroyed, not just because they deserve to be but to get them out of the way so the story can return to the perspective of someone with more true humanity.
Unlike a lot of fantasy stories, it’s pretty hard to tell exactly what the goal of the whole trilogy is. There are people who do good and people who do evil, but novels are not structured as good vs evil. There is not a quest to go on or a great deed to accomplish. Some characters learn lessons but there does not seem to be any overarching principle for either the characters or the reader to learn.
The closest I could find to a “theme” comes near the end of the second novel, Dragon Waking. A character who becomes known as Green Man, when invited to help in a coming fight, says that he is afraid of the violence in his nature. The Oomgosh, the tree-man who is in contact with all of nature, replies, “It is something we all must deal with when it is time to meet our fate.”
Some characters deal more with greed, or fear, or some other characteristic, but they all have something to deal with as fate approaches in the form of the dragon. I suppose my biggest disappointment with the books is that the dragon is not really a character at all, but rather more like a force of nature. Except that the dragon seems to be outside of nature, not subject to any rules but his own – which are never explained.
I wondered for a while if the dragon was supposed to represent God, but there is no indication that this is the case. In this fictional world, history is cyclic, revolving around the eventual coming of the dragon in a blaze of destructive fire. There is no purpose to it, no goal to be achieved, no real hope except the knowledge that sometimes a few people have survived the dragon’s coming.
And at the end of Dragon Burning, about all there is to say is that some do survive. I suppose there are worse ways to end a story than with the idea that “life goes on,” but it seems a bit thin, after a three-volume buildup to the dragon’s coming. There are certainly some interesting elements to the trilogy in terms of characters and plot, but I find it disappointing in that it doesn’t all add up to anything more than that.