Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Dirus' Gift

A dragon meets up with an old friend to learn some new information.

This acts as a scene-setter for my next fantasy novel, Wolf's Curse, as well as introducing one of the plot elements. This is set over 1000 years before the events of Destiny of Dragons, so things may not necessarily be as you'd expect.


It was not a night of mystical portents. Lightning didn’t arc across the sky, and no prophecies had ever been told of this day. It wasn’t even a full moon. No great deeds were to be done, but a meeting was about to take place that would change the fate of Farenar for centuries to come.
A lone dragon walked. White scales hid him almost completely against the deep snow that had built up on the mountainside with just his black horns and scales betraying his presence. He had crossed the invisible boundary that placed him within the human Kingdom of Aegia. Few dragons went there anymore, having ceded that territory to the weak, short-lived humans several centuries ago. Some Aegian’s refused to even believe in the existence of dragons anymore.
The white-scaled dragon didn’t care about any of that now. He just held his wings close to his back to stop the strong, mountainous winds from teasing them open. He had no desire to be dashed up against the looming cliffs around him. Snow crunched and melted beneath his paws as he walked towards a deep, black cave. From within, flickering firelight could be seen.
“Well met, Ruatha,” a voice called out from within. Human.
The dragon ducked his head inside the cave and let his eyes adjust to the dark. The cavern was dark and deep, water dripping down from the roof and pooling in a large puddle that trickled away into some narrow crevasses in the stone floor. Half hidden behind an alcove to protect it from the biting wind was a large fire, sparking blue with magic, a large pot of food cooking above it.
“You’re early, Alain. I wasn’t expecting you until Dirus showed The Lady,” the dragon said, approaching the fire and looking down at the two figures around it. One was human. An aged man, stooped over in his weathered cloak, wrinkled hands extended towards the warming fire.
The second figure was clearly not human. Despite the cold, the creature was barely dressed at all, instead using his thick pelt of silver fur to protect himself from the chill wind. Two pointed ears curled inwards as the dragon approached. This was one of the kaur, a race of feline creatures that usually lived in the mountains, using their thick fur to protect them from the elements, and their sharp claws to hint and kill their prey. It was rare for any of them to associate with a human.
The kaur looked up at the dragon through narrowed eyes. “Sometimes we can’t wait on the phases of the moon. No matter which face she shows, Dirus doesn’t wait on us.”
The dragon growled. “I am unfamiliar with you, kaur.”
The kaur smiled, showing off an impressive display of sharp teeth. “My name is Gyus, shaman of my people.”
“And why are you here, Gyus? I expected to meet the human alone.”
“Relax, Ruatha. The kaur is an old friend of mine,” Alain said, raising his hands up to the dragon’s snout to lightly touch the small, black horn between his nostrils. “He is here at my invitation.”
Ruatha snorted and nodded his head, slowly laying down and resting his head on his snow-white paws. He kept one eye on the kaur at all times, not once lowering his guard. He knew about the snow-cats and the ferocity of their claws. They had been known to take down a dragon unawares. He didn’t trust the human’s words enough to risk looking away. The kaur seemed to be aware of this too, his toothy grin wide as his thick, bushy tail swayed from side to side.
“I am no threat to you, dragon. I am a shaman, sworn to protect and conserve, never to cause harm to others. Even dragons are safe from my vows,” the kaur said. His claws were extended, but only so he could inspect them, not a demonstration of aggression.
Ruatha sniffed down at the kaur. He didn’t know much of their culture, finding it primitive and simple at the best of times, but he knew enough to know that the cat was being genuine. Their shamans never used their arcane powers for harm. Instead they were magnificent healers, and were said to help control the weather and the growth of their crops – a great boon in the mountains where they generally lived.
“What news do you have for me, Alain?” he asked, slowly turning his attention towards the human.
“That’s so like you dragon. Always needing information right away. What’s wrong with sitting by the fire and warming up from a cold, winter night?” the human replied. He didn’t look up at the dragon, instead stirring a ladle through the big pot of stew that was cooking over the fire.
Ruatha turned his head and snorted. “Do not keep me waiting, Alain. Why have you summoned me?”
Alain waggled his finger at the dragon, not answering the question and turning back to the cooking food. Ignoring the grumbling dragon, he simply dished up a bowl for himself and the kaur, not bothering to offer the dragon anything. Not that Ruatha would ever debase himself so much to eat any of the human’s cooked food.
Ruatha flicked his tail and paced around the cavern as he waited for Alain and Gyus to finish their meal. They took their time, and the dragon went to sit down outside the cave while he waited. The cold winds didn’t bother him at all, his own internal magic keeping him warm. The sky above was still clear, but snow drifted down around him, whipped up from the cliffs to drift slowly down the mountainside. It melted as it touched his scales, small rivulets of water dripping down his body.
He looked up to Dirus, the name given to the spirit who was said to reside in the moon that orbited Farenar. Little was known about her, but every species on Farenar had their own myths and legends about her. What most agreed on at least was that she had four faces that rotated as she waxed and waned each month. She currently looked down on Farenar with the wolf, her face half hidden in shadow.
It was certainly true that some form of magic emanated out from Dirus, but just what exactly it contained was a mystery to all on Farenar. Not even the werewolves, who were most affected by her magic, knew just what caused their monthly transformations. Not that many sought to discover the reasons. Most werewolves lacked the mental faculties to properly worry about the workings of their world, and few other races wanted anything to do with the bestial creatures. In that regard, Ruatha was very much an exception. He had been fascinated by werewolves for many decades now, but had made remarkably little progress in unlocking their secrets. He had hoped the human mystic had been able to discover something.
Distracted by his musings, the dragon didn’t notice Gyus until the kaur sat down by his side. The feline creature still held a steaming bowl of stew in his hands. A few dangling totems jangled from the kaur’s wrists.
“You know the lykans will never accept your help,” the kaur said with a low growl. His long, thick tail thrashed behind him, stirring up a small cloud of loose snow.
“Of course,” Ruatha replied, glancing down at the kaur beside him. The feline was less than half his height, but the dragon had grown to be wary of the kaur’s claws. He’d underestimated one of them before, and still bore the pink scars on his foreleg, blemishing his otherwise pristine white scales. “I don’t seek permission to help them. I just desire the knowledge of how they’re so altered by Dirus. If they choose to use my knowledge afterwards does not bother me.”
Gyus sneered. “Maybe we shall discover a way to declaw the threat they pose to our people.”
The dragon didn’t answer that, instead just directing his gaze upwards towards Dirus again. He had no desire to use any of his knowledge to control or restrict the werewolves, but he acknowledged the danger they routinely posed towards the kaur, who called the shapeshifters lykans.
“Perhaps they can at least be civilised,” Alain said, the human stepping out from the cave. Unlike the dragon and the kaur, he was troubled by the cold air outside, and was wrapped up in several layers of thick clothing. Even so, his face was still ruddy red from the chill wind.
“Perhaps,” Ruatha rumbled in agreement. It was not his responsibility to help develop the other races of Farenar, after all. None could match the glamour and wisdom of the dragons, and that was how it should be.
“Dirus sent us a gift a few nights ago,” Alain said, sweeping aside some snow so he could sit down on a jutting rock and face the dragon from a similar height. His arm gestured upwards.
Ruatha blinked and stared down at the human, before following his gesture up towards the stars and the half-hidden face of the moon goddess. Finally, this was what he had come for. A gift from the heavens was rare indeed, and for one to come straight from Dirus was a once in a lifetime opportunity, even for one as long-lived as a dragon. “Are you sure?”
“A light streaked across the sky and landed nearby. It came from her, I’m certain,” the human replied.
“I felt it too,” Gyus added. The cat fondled one of the charms around his wrist. “I am surprised you did not, dragon.”
Ruatha growled, but otherwise ignored the vocal jab from the kaur, instead swinging his head back towards the human. “And where did it land? Is it close by?”
“It landed in the outskirts of Vuost,” Alain said. His words were followed by a silence from all three. Ruatha’s eyes had darkened as he looked down to the ground, glaring into the snow as though it had caused him great offence, but instead it was the insinuation Alain’s words had made. The human knew well to keep quiet until the dragon spoke again. Gyus had wisely remained silent as well, picking up on the sudden tension in the cold air.
“Then the traitor will likely have it,” Ruatha growled. He looked to the east, towards where the human village of Vuost lay.
“I would expect so,” Alain confirmed with a nod of his head. The human avoided the fierce gaze of the dragon, instead casting his eyes back up towards Dirus. “She has sent us a great gift, a small piece of herself.”
“But why did it go to him?” Ruatha said, before standing up and shaking the snow from his wings and tail. “Thank you for your information, Alain. Perhaps I am not too late, and can pry her gift from the traitor before he steals it away for good.”
Alain and Gyus both stood up when the dragon did. “Going so soon?” the human asked.
Ruatha nodded. “I can’t risk the traitor using Dirus’ gift. I must go straight to Vuost and claim it for myself,” he said. He tested his wings against the wind, but even in this sheltered part of the valley, he could feel his membranes get tugged and pulled. He would travel on paw again. “You know how to call me should you find something new.”
“Of course,” Alain said, bowing his head. For a moment, the human reached out to place his hand on the dragon’s white scales, but at a glance from Ruatha he wisely pulled his hand back again. “Travel safe, great one.”
Ruatha scoffed and pushed past the human without a second thought, stepping around the still-silent kaur in one stride. Not once did the dragon look back, and soon he had vanished into the snow, his white scales blending him in perfectly. Ruatha knew he didn’t have much time to claim Dirus’ gift. The traitor could not be allowed to keep it.

Vuost lay in wait for him.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Keita's Story - contains Impossible Magic Spoilers

One of the things I've been asked since releasing Impossible Magic, is why didn't Keita chose Anzig as her mate? Why did she instead decide to take Okazuni as her lover?
Well, one reader asked me to write a short story with her explanation, and so I did! It's only a couple of thousand words, but hopefully it will provide some explanation as to why she decided Anzig was not worthy for her.



The Sxinix Mountains had long been a natural divide between the drakes and the humans of Kernow, a boundary between the two races. To the drakes, they were safety. Without wings, many parts of the great mountain range were completely inaccessible, and these had become refuges for the western clans in times of need. Of these, the most defensible was the mountain of Kxisila. Known only to the clan of magic, the mountain was a last resort should the Nixan lair ever be breached, though such a scenario had never once occurred.
Shielded by sheer cliff walls that offered no nook or cranny for grip, Kxisila was utterly unclimbable. Locked to the ground, humans didn’t have a chance of reaching the gentle slopes over five hundred feet above their heads. Above the cliffs, the mountain was thick with trees on the gentle slopes that rose up to the great peak, towering over everything around it. Kxisila was one of the tallest mountains in the Sxinix, and to any Nixan it was a beacon of safety second only to the comfort of their own lair.
As the sun started to sink to the uneven horizon cast by the mountains, the slopes of Kxisila were no longer empty and silent. Nine drakes had landed amongst the trees, exhausted from their long flight from the northern reaches of the Sxinix. Ddraig Anzig led them, Isikian by his side to guide him down to a suitable place to rest. The mountain had seen heavy rainfall recently, small streams bubbling down the grassy slopes before cascading down the tall cliffs, a fine mist descending to the distant flat terrain at their base.
There were a number of large caves dotted throughout the mountainside, and it didn’t take long for the small band to find refuge in one of them, with more than enough room to spread out. Kxisila could house a whole clan if needed, the nine drakes would have plenty of space, but it still didn’t feel like enough to one of them. As the others disappeared into the cave, Keita lingered behind, perching on the edge of the cliff and looking down over the dusk-tinged landscape. Most of it was little more than a blur to her imperfect eyes, but she had long ago learned to cope with her poor vision.
As conversations started to spring up inside, the dragoness became aware that she wasn’t alone. She turned, expecting to see Anzig there, as he had so often been as they had grown up together, but it wasn’t. Instead it was the Nyrian dragon Okazuni who approached. Though she had not known the diminutive dragon for very long, he had quickly become a close friend, her near constant companion on her wingtip during the long flights they had endured.
“Is everything alright?” he asked, settling down by Keita’s side. His eyes tracked a distant eagle the dragoness had no hope of seeing.
It was a while before Keita answered, just staring out into the gold and green blur the setting sun cast in her eyes. She sighed, pulling her tail tight around her legs. “Just a lot to think about I guess,” she said quietly.
“You know I’ll always listen to what’s on your mind,” Okazuni replied, lying down on the damp grass with his head resting in his paws.
Looking across at the Nyrian, Keita couldn’t help but smile. There was something about the Nyrian that made her comfortable. She had enjoyed his conversations from the moment they had met. It had been refreshing to hear from someone from outside her clan, having only rarely getting the chance to meet someone from beyond the Laxtal borders before. Despite having a powerful father, she had never been given any significant role in the clan by Ddraig Astar. She hoped that now his son ruled Laxtal, things would begin to change, but Anzig was the cause of most of her worries. She didn’t even know where to begin.
“Carlee told me a long time ago that she thought Anzig had really strong feelings for me, that he utterly adored me,” she said slowly, glancing back to make sure no one was around to overhear her. She couldn’t see anyone, though she doubted anyone would know if Nataik was around, the colour-changing scales of the Xigax dragoness able to hide her from even the best of eyes.
“I can’t say I blame him,” Okazuni said softly, half-turning away from the dragoness as he looked down the sheer cliff. “You’d be a great catch for any dragon.”
Keita swished her tail, but said nothing for the moment. Okazuni had told her that several times before, ever since she had been captured by the humans in the farmhouse, what felt like so long ago now. She had rejected his advances until now, working hard to keep the Nyrian as a much needed friend but nothing beyond that. Though he had respected her wishes, he still made the occasional effort to see if he could change her mind.
“Maybe that would be true if I could see,” Keita whispered eventually, tucking her tail tight around her legs. She knew her limitations, the reasons why she had never become a respected dragoness in the clan like her father had once hoped of her. “I can’t hunt, I can barely fight; I know that I’d make a pretty worthless mate. Maybe that’s why Anzig has no interest in me.”
Okazuni growled and shook his head. “Then he’s a fool. You could outwit any drake that dared face up to you. Does the Ddraig think that’s worthless?” he snarled, snapping a small branch in his paws. He thrashed his tail against the ground in his frustration.
Keita shook her head. “Our clan isn’t the same as yours. Laxtal prides itself on being a strong clan of warriors, second only to Axaatl. The weak have no place. Just look at Azlak,” she said, glancing back towards the cave, where the seer would be lying down, probably some distance away from his companions as usual. As she looked, she noticed Anzig come to the mouth of the cave and look out at them. She was sure the Ddraig’s eyes narrowed a little, but then he’d turned away back into the darkness. The Nyrian had noticed as well and his head bowed down to the ground.
“I should go back,” he said timidly. Before Keita could stop him, he’d turned tail and started bounding back up the slope towards the cave. Sighing, she wondered if she should return back as well, but she decided against it. More than anything else right now she wanted to be alone, but especially to be away from the pitiful gaze of Anzig. She was getting tired of his constant doting stares, yet never making any attempt to approach her with them.
Her decision made for her by her growing discontent, she spread her wings and took flight, not caring if anyone happened to see her. She just needed time away to think by herself, without any distractions from her companions. Soaring down to the distant trees, she kept her descent steady and controlled so she didn’t crash into anything her weak eyes failed to spot in the growing gloom. She knew it was a little foolish flying at this time, but she was beyond the point of caring.
But for a few birds squawking and screeching as she landed, Keita couldn’t detect any sounds of any large animals in the forest that encroached upon the sheer cliffs of Kxisila. The ground was littered with wet mulch, leaves that had been torn down by the storm that had almost caught them out the previous night. Most of the detritus was amber and red already, autumn not far from giving way to winter. Most of the beauty was lost to her, the leaves underpaw reduced to just an orange blur mixed in with brown. Her paws were soon sodden and dirty from the mud, but she felt no desire to turn back.
Keita was starting to panic. She had been alone in the darkness for so long now, unsure what the way back was. She didn’t dare take to wing as she was still deep within the forest, with little light getting through the canopy of trees. Almost blind, she stumbled over tree roots she was sure were writhing up to snag at her legs.
Finally though, after what felt like hours of searching, her weak eyes found another source of light that wasn’t the moon. She followed it, not once blinking in case she happened to lose it, until she stumbled out into a small clearing. The light was on the far side, but she allowed herself to be distracted by the sound of wingbeats and a dark shadow leaping into the air.
She didn’t know whether the drake was friend or foe, but she hurried after it, leaping into the air and following in desperation. She called out to the drake. They yelped in shock, slowing their flight and turning around.
“Keita? I’d have thought you’d be back by now.” It was Nataik, Keita realised. She quickly beat her cooling wings to catch up with the other dragoness.
“I got lost,” Keita replied, her head low. Somehow she knew that the Xigax dragoness had followed her out from the cave, remembering the occasional rustling of leaves behind her. That had to have been Nataik.
“What were you even doing out here?” Nataik asked, slowly beating her wings as they started to fly back towards Kxisila. “You of all drakes should be staying where it’s safe at night.”
Keita scoffed at the rebuttal. “I can look after myself,” she said, growling softly at the other dragoness. “But I had to come out to think. Okazuni and Anzig have given me a lot to think about.”
“Choosing which to be your mate?”
“How did…”
This time it was Nataik’s turn to scoff. “It’s really not that subtle. The Ddraig swoons over you but is too scared to act. He’s weak, and will lose control of Laxtal the moment he sets wing back there. Okazuni may not be a Ddraig or Haeraig, but he is the much stronger dragon. Choose the Nyrian and you’ll thank me for it later.”
“But I have been friends with Anzig almost since the day he hatched,” Keita protested, more for the sake of arguing than anything else. She heard and understood the truth in Nataik’s words. It almost perfectly echoed what her thoughts had been before she had realised she was lost.
“Better to be mated to a respected Nyrian, than with the disrespected overthrown Ddraig of Laxtal,” Nataik said harshly. “I may not always do the right thing, but I do know a thing or two about males. If you only have to listen to me just once, then make it this time. You will not regret it.”
Keita remained silent, and Nataik respected this and didn’t speak again on the flight back to the cave. Though many hours had passed, no one seemed to have even noticed their absence. No one had remained awake for them, and the cave was silent and still when they finally slunk back inside.
A fire was burning on the rock, kept alive from Inilta’s magic. It would burn for days on end if needed without any additional input from the Nixan, and the two dragonesses appreciated its warmth to help shake away the night’s chill.
Nataik immediately curled up right next to the fire, pushing Carlee out of the prime spot. The aging veteran didn’t even rouse.
Keita just stood by the cave entrance for a few moments longer. As though to emphasise her choice, Anzig and Okazuni were lying at opposite sides of the chamber. Anzig by the fire to her right; Okazuni to the left.
She turned left.
Curling up beside the little Nyrian dragon, she found his tail in her own, entwining together. His eyes opened slightly, a gentle smile forming on his lips.
Her decision had been made.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

What it means to be a gay character in fiction.

Our world has come a long way fast when it comes to LGBT rights. The landmark ruling just the other day in the USA is proof of that. In the so called 'Western World', more countries now allow gay marriage than those that don't. Hopefully countries like Australia catch up soon.

But one aspect that seems to be falling behind is the representation of gay characters in fantasy and science fiction. Very rarely are characters anything but heterosexual, and this is curious to me. Why is it, when a massive proportion of the world's population is willing to accept LGBT people, do we see a gaping void in fiction where the LGBT folk should be?

To be sure, there have been exceptions to this. Mercedes Lackey for one featured a number of gay characters, but sadly these usually fell into the trope of cliché and stereotype. In fact, this seems to be the norm for what few gay characters make it - they are cliché-driven stereotypes that only seem to be there to flaunt their own gayness or to make some sort of unsubtle point about the state of the world. From sassy best friends, to the inexplicably fashion conscious, to the tragic angst, every LGBT character is a caricature of themselves. Rarely the focus point of attention, the LGBT characters are there to stand on the sidelines, to cheer on the main characters and to act as a little checkbox for the author to tick on their 'minorities list'. Are we not long past the time where this should be so?

Another example of how LGBT characters are treated has come from one of the most successful book franchises of all time - Harry Potter. After the final book was released, J.K. Rowling came out on behalf of Albus Dumbledore. The great wizard was gay, and had been romantically involved with another wizard many years ago. While I respect Rowling, and adore her as an author, I can't help but wonder why this was never included in the books, and had to be announced after Deathly Hallows was released. Was she afraid readers wouldn't accept her creation as he was truly meant to be? I would like to think that Dumbledore's coming out would have helped change things in speculative fiction particularly, but I have yet to really see that.

From what I've read, I think the most natural portrayal of gay characters has come from the amazing Robin Hobb. There are LGBT characters scattered throughout her books, and they all feel quite natural. They are all varied with their own personalities, and don't fall too far into cliché. Yes, there are some gay characters who are fashion conscious, but I would argue this is more because they are noble born, rather than gay, The Fool is a particularly wonderful example of an LGBT character. Fool is a gender-ambiguous being with varying preferences and desires, and to my recollection it is never explicitly revealed who or what he/she is.

It is by taking example of Robin Hobb that I have tried to portray my LGBT characters: as natural, real parts of the world in which they live.

*Warning - some spoilers ahead for Destiny of Dragons and Reborn*

In Reborn, I created the race of starats - artificially created to be a slave race to humanity. Every last one of them is bisexual, and completely accepting of this in a time that has fallen back under religious control and conservatism. After Rhys' teleporter incident, he struggles to come to terms with bisexuality with his new starat body and mind. It doesn't play a major role in the story, but with two potential romantic leads at the end of the first book, I've left room to explore this much further in the rest of the series. Both Steph and Elijah will be able to play for Rhys' affections.

In the world of Reborn I like to think I have created a reasonable situation in which society has regressed from a lot of social rights we now expect. Gay marriage does not exist in this time, and LGBTs are barely tolerated at all under the new Catholic order. Starats, being free from the church, are not bound by the same morals and live much like we do today.

In Farenar, a whole different situation applies of course. In the Destiny of Dragons series to date, there hasn't been explicitly a gay character, but I have left large hints that one of the major characters is gay. This is properly revealed in the third book, but for those who are unwilling to wait that long, I can confirm that Azlak is gay. I deliberately underplayed this facet of his character because at no point was it relevant to reveal. Shy, quiet, and often ignored, Azlak had never had the opportunity to explore his sexuality until he started to gain the attention and respect of other dragons. Even though the reader got the chance to explore his mind, he never thought of it as he knew he would never get a mate. He could never See that future for himself, but in a rare moment of empathy for my characters, I have given him some happiness in book three (Azlak is my favourite character after all).

The reason I'm putting this all down is because I'd like to see a shift in the way gay characters are portrayed. The world has made huge steps recently. Small pockets of sub-genres have moved forward, but as a whole science fiction and fantasy has been lagging behind.

I would be proud to be at the forefront of that change.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Ursa Major Awards

A quick update on some latest news:

Impossible Magic is a finalist in the Ursa Major Awards! I'm utterly thrilled about getting this far - winning it would be beyond belief!
Voting is open to absolutely everyone, and can be done here:
There's some very worthwhile candidates in many of the categories, so do give it a browse!

To celebrate Impossible Magic making it this far, I've decided to put Axinstone on special. Folks in the US can pick it up on Amazon for just US$0.99! That's right, just 99 cents!
There's never been a better time to pick up all the dragons you could ever want for less than a dollar!

So please feel free to pick up a copy and vote for Impossible Magic. You will have my undying love if you do so.

End shameless self promotion.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

A Short Review: The Great Zoo of China, Matthew Reilly

Rating- 3.5/5

I have always heard a lot about Matthew Reilly, but I'd never before read one of his books. I was never going to pass on an opportunity to read a book like this though.
In the most TL;DR form I could possibly say, The Great Zoo of China is Jurassic Park with dragons. That is all you really need to know about this book.
But to elaborate slightly:
In terms of action: riveting. The book is running at a constantly high pace - there is always something happening. Usually multiple things. There really aren't many natural points to put the book down and take a break. The chapters are short and snappy, adding to this.
This certainly helped the book, as it also allows some of the flaws to be brushed over. The biggest flaw I can highlight is the use of deus ex machina. At too many points in the story are the heroes about to meet their demise when something rescues them from out of the blue - be it human allies, human enemies, or unwitting dragons just looking for something to chew on. This happens multiple times, and it does start to get grating towards the end.

Still, I certainly recommend this read to anyone who sat through and enjoyed Jurassic Park (books or film - the first one!), and dragons.

All in all, a good read.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

O Smaug the Chiefest and greatest of Calamities.

After being asked on Twitter for my thoughts on the movie interpretation of Smaug, I decided that 140 characters was far too small for my thoughts on the matter. Good job I have this blog then, where I can ramble on about Smaug, a dragon who had far too short a screen time in over 9 hours worth of Hobbity goodness.

A fair warning, there will be spoilers. But if you haven't read a 78 year old masterpiece, then something is seriously wrong with you.

Another disclaimer: I adore The Hobbit and LotR.

So, on with the show!

Creating a dragon for film isn't an easy process. Sadly Hollywood is seriously lacking in dragons of great acting potential, so producers usually have to resort to special effects to create these noble creatures. Naturally, this leads to all sorts of problems than must be overcome. These include, but are not limited to, design, CGI quality, voice acting, character, and so on.

First up for The Hobbit, I'll talk about the quality of the CGI.
Here is where I think The Hobbit gets it absolutely right. Weta Studios have been producing some incredible creature effects for quite a few years now, and the work they did on Smaug was immaculate. It had taken nearly twenty years, but in Smaug I believe there was a dragon that was better animated than Draco (DragonHeart). Saphira (Eragon) came close, but ultimately that travesty of a movie dragged her down a few notches.
Smaug looks and feels like a real creature. He lives in the world created by the filmmakers, and isn't just a floating green ball for the actors to vaguely stare at. Though the thought of Cumberbatch in that skin-tight motion capture suit is alright by me. More on Cumberbatch later.

Related to the look of Smaug, is his design. Now, here is where I was a little disappointed. Movie Smaug was noticeably different to Book Smaug in a number of ways. Most importantly, in my opinion, is that Movie Smaug is not a True Dragon. True Dragons are six limbed - two wings and four legs. Movie Smaug is only four limbed, classifying him as a wyvern. This appears to be a late change from the filmmakers, as his forelegs are actually shown in the opening of the first film.

This was changed in the Extended Version of the same film. Notice how the claws are now clearly part of his wing.

We can talk about the hows and whys of the change until the cows come home, but the fact of the matter is they changed Smaug from a True Dragon to a Wyvern at some point late in production. Is this a bad thing? Eh, depends on who you ask really. Tolkien purists would of course be disappointed that such an iconic character was altered, but there was talk that a four limbed reptile is more scientifically plausible than a six limbed one. The back and forths would take forever to resolve, so I'll just say that I would have preferred a six-limbed Smaug, but he looks so awesome because of Weta's work that I am willing to overlook it.
One last thing on his design: Smaug's firebreathing.

The way his whole body lights up when he's about to incinerate his foes is pretty damn awesome visually. Practically though? He is after all giving his prey those few extra seconds to escape by this, which does save Bilbo's bacon on at least one occasion.

So, Smaug looks amazing thanks to Weta. A few small disappointments on design choices, but these can be overlooked. Next, we have to look at his character, and that comes down to two things. Script and actor.
First, the actor.
Cumberbatch nails it. Without a shadow of a doubt.
There isn't really much more to say here, other than the fact I don't believe any other actor could have so brilliantly portrayed Smaug. Certainly the best dragon voice since Sean Connery gave his voice to Draco. It has everything: intelligence, wit, power. Everything Smaug needs and deserves.

Finally, script.
Even with the best voice actor, the best CGI work, the best design, he would still fail as a character if the script was poor.
Here we meet mixed success.
On the one hand, his lines were basically perfect. Cumberbatch had some incredible material to work with. Both the original lines from the book and the new lines written for the movie were consistently accurate with his character. Everything from his first line to his last was amazing.
Where it started to all fall down was his actions. There were times when he came across as bumbling and clumsy, something I doubt the Book Smaug ever was. Case in point, when he's flailing around in the forges. He also failed to hear the dwarves at one point as they crept beneath him, despite already showing incredible senses to find Bilbo while he wore his ring (and smelling dwarf on Bilbo, yet being unable to smell them when they were barely a dozen feet from his nose).
I would also gripe about Smaug dying like all dragons do in film now, but I never really expected them to deviate from the books quite that much! I just would have preferred a lot more of Smaug in Five Armies, as he was dead in fifteen minutes.

So, overall, I thought Smaug was a brilliantly crafted dragon.
Yes, there were flaws in his design, as well as some elements of his characterisation thanks to the script direction, but these can all be overlooked. They are ultimately minor flaws in what is certainly one of the most recognisable dragons in literature.

No longer do we have to look at a 20 year old film on how to do dragons right.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015


Next year I will be releasing Wolf's Curse, which is set in Aegia; east of the dragon territories and Kernow, where Destiny of Dragons takes place.
To introduce you to this ancient kingdom, I wrote Dragonslayer. This is largely unedited, and not intended to be 'good' in any way, but to to introduce you to this new part of Farenar.

I hope you enjoy.


The road from Meanvr was almost deserted, with just one lone figure and his horse travelling west on the banks of Dark River. The water was as black as its name suggested, throwing up not a single reflection despite the sun’s bright light shining down upon its surface. Somehow life still dwelt within the black water. Fish occasionally broke the surface, only to be swooped upon by opportunistic kingfishers.
Upriver was the small village of Hyven, a tiny outpost about halfway between the distant cities of Meanvr and Tsona. The coming of the lone man had already been noticed. The charred wooden gates were thrown open, and half a dozen armed guards stood on the side of the road, their pikes raised to the sky. A guard of honour for the approaching hero.
Anton regarded this all with bright eyes, wrapping his horse’s reigns tighter between his fingers. The old mare had a habit of bolting around strangers. He didn’t want a scene like the one at the Meanvr markets.
Chuckling slightly at the memory, Anton watched as the captain of the guard strode out from the village walls. They met where the narrow trail that led to the village splintered away from the main road. “Your sword is most welcome here, Knight of Aegia,” the captain said in greeting.
“Is your mayor ready to see me?” Anton said brusquely.
“He is, my lord. He is in the village hall.”
“Good. Take me there please, and find someone to stable old Greta here. She could use a rest and some food,” Anton replied. He looked up to the sky, but there was no sign of the menace that had drawn his presence. The air was quiet and still, with barely even a bird soaring overhead. The metallic ring of a blacksmith’s hammer rang out through the air, drowning out the distant sound of cattle and other livestock.
Anton passed Greta’s reigns over to a guard as he passed the wooden walls that surrounded the village. The walls bore the scars of the recent conflicts that had plagued Hyven. Here and there the wood had been charred and scorched, in some places whole planks of wood were missing. Remarkably, the damage seemed restricted to the outer walls only. Not a single building within had been touched by the flames.
The village hall was easy to find, being the largest building right in the centre of the village. The cobbled piazza that surrounded the hall was full as what seemed like most of the village had turned up to witness the arrival of this legendary hero. Unlike the usual celebrations that normally heralded Anton’s arrival, Hyven was taken by a nervous silence. Only a few haggard cries and isolated outbreaks of applause followed him.
Inside the village hall was the large audience chamber, where the mayor and his aides were waiting for Anton. Dressed in the traditional red velvet robe of the Aegian landowners, the mayor of Hyven rose to greet his guest.
“Welcome, Anton, the greatest dragon slayer east of the Snowcaps,” the mayor cried, spreading his arms wide.
Anton blanched and stumbled. “I’m sorry? Did you call me dragon’s layer?”
The mayor spluttered, almost falling from his stand in shock. “Why, no, good sir. Dragon slayer, is that not what you are?” he replied, putting particular emphasis on his words.
“Slayer, right, yes.” Anton cleared his throat and rolled his shoulders back. “That is why I have come. Shall we discuss the terms of my services, and then you can point me in the direction of the beast?”
The mayor quickly recovered his composure as he offered Anton forty gold aurels and two barrels of the village’s finest wine, with half to be paid once the dragon was killed. It was a rich sum for such a small village. Their need was great indeed if they were willing to make such an offer. Anton didn’t even attempt to negotiate the fee upwards, accepting the deal with barely a moment of thought.
As a contract was written up detailing the accepted terms, the mayor came down from his raised dais and shook Anton’s hand. “We are glad you managed to make it here so soon,” he said, losing much of his formality and pomp as he guided the dragonslayer back outside. “Ever since the dragon came our village has ground to a halt. No one uses the main road anymore. If someone wants to get from Meanvr to Alanat they’ll take the road to Tsona, adding several days to their journey. There is no trade anymore, and with no trade we have no money coming in to the village. We had no choice but to turn to a slayer.”
“This dragon will be gone in a week, I can promise you that.”
“I hope you’re right. You’re our last hope.”
“I have never failed before. I don’t intend on starting that now.”
For what remained of the afternoon, Anton lingered around the village, waiting for the dragon to show itself. Though there were some muttered protests that he wasn’t making any progress in slaying the beast, these whispers quickly stopped once he explained his logic. It was better for the dragon to come to them, rather than risk being ambushed by hunting for its lair.
That night he stayed in a room above the small tavern, his bed and meals provided for at no cost. The tavern was deserted, not even the barroom had any patrons. The rest of the village stayed within their homes, cowed by the presence of the dragon. He shared several stories with Ivar the tavernkeeper, keeping a guarded tongue as he told of his past exploits. He didn’t want just anyone learning his most precious secrets after all.
His room was rustic and basic, but after several weeks of travelling on the road it felt luxurious to Anton. He revelled in being able to soak in a tub of hot water for a while, letting the exertions of his travels fade away. This village had already made him rich. It would be a simple matter to collect the remainder of his fee.
Anton rose with the sun the next morning. Ivar was already awake by the time he descended into the barroom, looking so alert Anton wasn’t even sure he had slept. A quick fried breakfast was provided, before the slayer emerged into the village. Few were awake, but the smell of freshly baked bread wafted through the village square. It was a pleasing aroma, and Anton knew he would need to visit the little bakery later, but for now he had work to do.
He spent most of the morning patrolling the village walls, keeping his eyes focussed on the miles of farmland and wilderness that stretched out in every direction. Partly he hunted for signs of the dragon, but he also studied the lay of the land, learning the location of every contour and ridge. A small forest to the east interested him greatly. He could use that to his advantage.
The dragon, he was told, usually flew over once a week. Normally it didn’t bother too much with the village, just giving a few swoops and deafening roars, and instead preferring to chase down any brave travellers on the road. Only an ill-advised volley of arrows had drawn the dragon’s wrath last time it had passed by. If this was right, then the dragon should show itself again the next day.
The mayor threw a festival that evening, celebrating what was surely to be the end of the months-long reign of terror from the dragon. It was not a huge gathering, with only about two dozen people descending upon the village hall, but it was a merry feast. Though many drinks were thrust in his hands, Anton refused them all. He would need his wits about him if he were to succeed in his plan, and a hangover was not the way to go. Instead he watched the villagers dance from the shadows, staying close to the food-laden tables.
“You aren’t from around here, are you?”
Yet another woman held out a drink for Anton, which he politely took but never once raised to his lips. “How could you tell?”
The woman smoothed her skirt before taking the spare seat next to Anton. “I have travelled, you know. I can recognise an Alvanan accent, especially one as strong as yours.”
“I have lived in Aegia for most of my life, but you’re right, I was born in Tembul.” Anton was impressed with this woman. While it was true his enunciation was often considered posh by Aegian standards, it was usually dismissed as being the result of a wealthy upbringing. This woman, whose name he was to learn was Arianne, had heard what most others were too ignorant to realise.
The usual questions quickly followed; why had he come this far from his homeland, and did he prefer life in Aegia? Anton’s answers were evasive, not wanting to reveal too much about his past, but Arianne was satisfied when he said he stayed in Aegia for the adventure his profession gave him. That, and love. Given his job it was tough, knowing that his love was out there alone, but he coped. The time they spent together made it all worthwhile.
Anton smirked as the group of young women that had been lingering around him started to disperse at the realisation that he was spoken for. There had been a time when barroom flings had been a perk of such a glamourous profession like a dragonslayer, but those days were behind him now.
Gradually the evening petered out, and after a few drunken speeches from the mayor, Anton returned to the tavern. The moon was full, and from somewhere over the moors, a wolf howled. Now there was a job he was glad he didn’t have. Keeping werewolves away from the villages and towns was none of his concern. Only the brave and foolhardy stood up to a werewolf.
Anton paused before pushing open the tavern door, the back of his neck prickling as though he was being watched. Slowly he glanced back to the alley between the bakery and butchery. Something moved in the shadows there. His hand moved to his sword.
The figure stepped out into the light. Anton relaxed when he saw the rust-red fur of an ailur, one of the bestial creatures that lived to the far south-east of Aegia. It was rare that any came this far north, and they were usually only employed as messengers. Aegians tended to distrust them, but Anton felt no fear as the creature beckoned to him. This one was familiar to him.
The ailur’s black eyes were wide as he slowly crept forward, his long fluffy tail twitching behind him. He nervously pawed at the white markings on his face, his nose twitching at all the unfamiliar scents. “Deryn sent me,” he whispered, flinching at the sound of a door closing. “She said she’s ready.”
Anton nodded, patting the ailur on the shoulder. “Good. I thought she might be. Go back and stay safe with her, and I’ll catch up with you when I can.”
The ailur squeaked out an affirmation in his native language before scurrying back into the shadows. Anton waited for a few moments until he could no longer hear the messenger’s gentle footfalls. Ailur typically went without shoes, their feet were ill-adapted to the human concept of footwear.
Once he was sure the ailur had made it out the village safely, Anton return to his room. He would need a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow was when the real work would begin.
The next day was as perfect a day for dragonslaying that Anton could ask for. The sky was completely clear, and there was barely a breeze to speak of. There would be nowhere for the dragon to hide in the air. As he stood on the main road with Greta by his side, Anton looked back towards Hyven. The villagers had ignored his request for them all to stay within the safety of the walls. That could make things more difficult, but he could improvise.
Ulric, the captain of the guard, had come forward to stand with the dragonslayer. In silence they waited. Several times Anton resisted the urge to look through Greta’s packs to ensure that he had everything he needed. He knew it was all there, but the tension was starting to get to him. He wasn’t used to such an audience.
After an hour of waiting the first roar could be heard. The dragon came into view a few moments later, appearing from behind the hills in the west.
“She’s a female,” Anton cried out, marvelling at the copper scales of the dragon as she flew overhead. “Note the lack of horns, and the streamlined, slender body. Males are more thickset, more powerful but slower and less agile in flight.”
“I don’t care much about identifying the creature. It’s a menace, and deserves to die. Male or female doesn’t bother me,” Ulric replied tersely. He had raised his sword as though in futile defiance to the dragon as she started to circle over Hyven.
Anton continued to study the dragon. He estimated her to be about thirteen feet in height, with a wingspan of at least three times that. Her colouring was primarily copper, but he could also see some darker stripes along her back.
“How do you intend on killing it? Magic?” Ulric asked, tearing Anton’s attention away from the dragon.
“With this,” he replied, pulling his bow from Greta’s back. He carefully selected a single arrow from his quiver, ignoring the incredulous look that was spreading across Ulric’s face.
“We have fired hundreds of arrows at the beast. Its scale is too tough to pierce,” the captain of the guard said.
“But you didn’t have this arrow. It’s enchanted. Now excuse me, I don’t want to miss this shot,” Anton said, notching arrow to bowstring. He watched the dragon. She seemed content to just circle around the village, occasionally flying as far out as the small forest that encroached towards the main road and Dark River in the east. Perfect. If the dragon fell there the trees would prevent her from taking to wing again.
Waiting for the perfect moment, Anton unleashed his arrow. He lost the small shaft into the sun, but the dragon’s shriek told him all he had to know. He had found his mark.
The dragon plummeted to the ground, smashing through the trees with a deafening crash. She did not rise again.
“Did… did you kill it?” Ulric asked in a hushed whisper.
“I’m going to find out. Stay here with Greta. Do not let anyone approach.”
Handing the captain of the guard his bow, Anton stalked off towards the forest, his sword raised in front of him. A downed dragon was just as dangerous as a flying one. Tooth and claw were every bit as deadly as flame.
The mayor and a few other brave souls joined Ulric in his vigil with Greta. The horse, thoroughly unconcerned by everything around her, had taken to eating the lush grass around her hooves.
“Is the creature dead?” the mayor asked.
A horrific shriek erupted from the forest, sending bird and beast scattering from the trees. The mayor blanched, and everyone but him and Ulric fled to the village at the sound. Only the horse showed an incredible indifference to the dragon’s roars.
“If the slayer fails…” Ulric said, but his words died in his throat. He knew well enough that Hyven would not survive if the dragon was not killed now.
Trees shook as the dragon roared one last time, a pained noise that was suddenly cut off. The silence that followed was agonising to both men. They waited… and waited… and waited.
Anton emerged from the trees, staggering forward and using his sword for balance. His leather armour was coated in red.
Ulric rushed forward, the mayor close on his heels and showing good fortitude for a politician more used to sitting behind desks than physical activity. They were stopped at the forest’s edge by a sharp word from the dragonslayer.
“Don’t go in there.”
“Why not? I wish to see the dragon defeated,” the mayor demanded, trying to push past the slayer, but Anton held his sword out to block him.
“A dragon lies dead within these trees. Her blood spills over the ground. A curse has fallen upon this forest. None should enter for… a year should be safe,” Anton warned. The mayor immediately backed away, staring at the branches of the nearest tree as though fearing it would reach out and grab him.
Anton spread his arms wide. “But come, now is the time for another celebration, is it not? Hyven is freed from the dragon’s wrath. You can live free of fear again.”
The celebrations ran until the small hours of the morning. This time there was no fear amongst the villagers of Hyven, and only the young children remained behind in their homes. Drink and food were plentiful once again. The frivolous nature of the evening wasn’t even diminished by the realisation that the cause of their celebration was missing. Anton the dragonslayer hadn’t been seen since he had claimed the remainder of his prize. Though many drinks were raised in his honour, no one thought to go searching for him. He had probably already moved on, the common excuse was. On his way to his next dragon to slay.
It was easy to slink out of the village unseen. Anton didn’t look back once as he led Greta out towards the main road. The poor horse was laden with the two barrels of wine he had won for his services, as well as his normal equipment, but she bore it all without complaint. The moon lit their way, the distant howl of wolves the only concern, but even the werewolves wouldn’t dare approach him now.
“Karrax? Karrax, are you there?” he called out as he approached the small forest.
The ailur poked his furred head out from the foliage. “Here, my master. Deryn is waiting for you. She grows a little impatient.”
Leaving Greta in the capable hands of Karrax, Anton cautiously picked his way through the thick trees, towards the clearing in the middle of the forest. Deryn was there, waiting for him.
“Did the plan work, my love?” the copper dragoness asked, a sly grin spreading across her scaled muzzle.

Anton raised the bulging sack of gold tied securely to his hip. “It worked perfectly.”