“There are certain things in life that are glorious, and they are glorious for everyone. There are more that are hard, and they are hard for everyone. We like to see these things retold, but with dragons.”
— Erin Bow
I’m halfway through H. L. Burke’s Cora and the Nurse Dragon book right now, and enjoying it immensely. Then I wondered, “Would I enjoy this book as much if it was about cats or dogs?”
The swift answer, “No.”
The rejoinder, “Why?”
J. J. Abrams gave a TED talk about mystery boxes. In magic shows, the part that the audience enjoys is the buildup–the slow revelation of the mystery–the suspense–before the big reveal. We love mysteries, especially mysteries leading to more mysteries.
What’s inside the box? What if once we open it, we find another box, equally mysterious? That’s what kept people watching LOST–that slow trickle of reveals that led to more questions.
Dragons are like that. Since they’re mythical, writers aren’t held to any hard and fast science, the way cats and dog are. Do they breathe fire, ice, or poison? How does that work, exactly? Do they fly? How do an extra pair of limbs attach to a quadruped? Can they speak, or are they telepathic?
Every author’s answer to these questions is different. The only things we know for sure is that dragons are huge, awesome lizards, and figuring out what they can do is one of the mystery boxes of the fantasy genre. We’re always happily looking forward to a new twist on dragons, the way a magician’s audience expects to see people disappear, transform, or be sawed in half.
Any mythical creature can be a mystery box. For instance, the wicked unicorn in Stengl’s Moonblood is full of surprises, to the extent that his storyline overshadows that of the heroes.
The gryfons in Kara’s Song of the Summer King series are a fount of questions that are slowly being answered–after all, we know they stole their gold from dragons, but how did they come by their vivid plumage colors? Where did the Wyrms come from, and can the hero gryfon ever communicate with them?
But again, we come back to dragons being the biggest, most delicious mystery box of all. From Pern to Earthsea to Nice Dragons Finish Last to Game of Thrones, dragons are not only fantasy standard, their mystique continue to delight audiences to this day.
And by the way, Cora and the Nurse Dragon is yet another fantastic dragon story, taking the Dungeons and Dragons hierarchy of metallic vs chromatic and using it in a whole new way. One more mystery box to add to the playground that is the fantasy genre.