[reread] TALKING TO DRAGONS by Patricia C. Wrede
I’m nearly at the end—they’ve got out of the D&D cavern, met some dragons, fought some wizards. Daystar’s about to fulfill his combination destiny and filial duty. Which is…a little weird.
Cimorene’s life work isn’t attending a dragon, or being a queen—for half her life as we see it, her driving purpose is to ensure her son is in the right position to return Mendenbar’s sword to him and restore him to his life and kingship. And it fits in the story, with Mendenbar’s returning the power of the Enchanted Forest to the forest, and Kazul rightly becoming King of the Dragons, while the murderous cheat diminished into toad form. Although the initial conceit of the series is a character who says, to hell with these tropes, I don’t have to live by them—in fact the series overall is very much about the maintenance of order.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a little surprising in what appears initially to be a work of subversion. In the first book, everyone pushes against the grain as they like, especially Kazul and Cimorene. By this book, that stout, sensible attitude has shifted towards something a lot more prescriptive.
Cimorene’s kindred spirit Shiara (who as I recall goes off to be Kazul’s new “princess” at the end of the book, so she’s really quite like her) is the only one who questions the tropes and roles that Cimorene does. But while it works out nicely for Cimorene, Shiara learns that her rebellion actively harms her. For much of the book Shiara struggles with her magic—until Daystar discovers that she can only use it when she’s polite.
Now, not being horrible to people all the time is a pretty good thing. But Shiara is a member of a group of people who get the short end of the stick pretty often in this series, and in this story magic’s application is frequently related to battle. It’s a weapon, offensive and defensive…except that Shiara literally cannot use it offensively. SHE CAN’T GET MAD AT PEOPLE WHO TRY TO HURT HER, OR SHE LOSES THE ABILITY TO PROTECT HERSELF.
It’s not deliberate but it’s a very, very different message than the one that Cimorene sends in the first book. No-nonsense, un-mincing, sturdy, stubborn, smart is okay in the first book, but Shiara can’t get away with it. She has to be nice.
Which is, I think, something of a betrayal of Dealing With Dragons. Because if a girl wants to be nice, or feels nice, or is nice, that’s nice. But she should never have to be. That’s the whole point.
There’s a bit in Diana Wynne Jones’s Eight Days of Luke where David, the protagonist with a number of terrible, demanding, uncharitable guardians, realizes that gratefulness should never be demanded of anybody, and people who demand it probably don’t deserve it. That’s the sort of situation that Shiara is in, except that Shiara never gets to that point in the book. I hope that if the book kept going, she would get there, but it sure would have been nice for someone to spin around on convention and say, “HEY, THAT’S NOT RIGHT AT ALL!” It’s what worked about the first books and it’s certainly what Shiara deserves.