It's been the better part of a decade since husband and wife Peter Dickinson and Robin McKinley last teamed up to write Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits. Now they have once again joined forces to produce another collection of short stories, this one focused on fire. Unlike their previous attempt, in which McKinley's efforts clearly outshined Dickinson's, in Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits, both authors put forward amazing fantasy stories that run the gamut from an eerie ghost story to a heartbreakingly bittersweet prehistoric fable, but all of which share the common thread of fire.
There are five stories in this collection, three by Dickinson and two substantially longer ones by Mckinley:
--Phoenix, by Dickinson, tells the story of an elderly British gamekeeper who discovers a phoenix, and as a result, begins to age backwards. Despite being placed first in the book, and having the best beginning, Phoenix is the weak link of the collection, and has a disappointing and anticlimactic ending. Still, don't get discouraged if you read this tale and find it lacking; the other four stories are significantly better.
--McKinley's Hellhound is a nail-biting account of a young woman and her hellhound who find themselves forced into a confrontation in a haunted graveyard. McKinley's love of animals shines in this story, as the bulk of it takes place at a riding stable, and cats, horses, dogs, and birds are practically everywhere.
--Dickinson's Fireworm is a prehistoric fable about a group of cavedwellers who must fight off their ancient enemy the fireworm. The line between heroes and monsters is completely wiped away, and midway through it's clear that regardless of the outcome, this is going to end in tragedy. I haven't read all of Dickinson's work, but of what I have read, this is by far the best.
--Salamander Man, also by Dickinson, is a nice story about a young man enslaved to a kindly dealer of magical items. When he suddenly finds himself sold to a magician he's never met, his life takes an unexpected turn. While there is perhaps a bit too much exposition towards the end of the story, this is still a solid and entertaining tale.
--First Flight is the final and longest (at over 100 pages) story in the book. Here, McKinley writes of unlikely hero Ern, an awkward and clumsy young man who prefers to hide in corners rather than be noticed. But when Ern's brother, in training as a dragonrider, comes home livid that a beloved injured dragon has been assigned a task it can't possibly complete, the local wizard suggests Ern accompany his brother back to the training academy. Certain that there is nothing he can do to help, but unwilling to risk defying the wizard, Ern and his pet Sippy head off to the academy to provide what moral support they can.
I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in high quality fiction, and especially encourage anyone who enjoys a good fantasy story (or several good fantasy stories) to read this collection. McKinley and Dickinson both shine, and their stories complement each other wonderfully.
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