Dragons. The word brings to mind a flood of images from movies, books, and art. Most of the adults I know love dragons. They would happily become one, or befriend one that appeared to them. Most of the kids I know want their own Toothless. (On the other hand, not many want a full grown Norwegian Ridgeback.)
When Brandon Sanderson first started thinking about the story that eventually became his latest book, Skyward, he was inspired by works about dragons—specifically books about finding dragons and learning how to fly them. Eventually, he decided to twist the classic formula of “a boy and his dragon” into a “girl and her starfighter” story, and thus Skyward took flight.
In light of the novel’s origins, it’s interesting to look back at the kinds of stories in which Sanderson has found so much inspiration, which he credits with being some of the first books he ever read as a young reader first getting into the fantasy genre. So let’s talk about the appeal of dragons.
This fascination with dragons might be an outgrowth of the common childhood love of dinosaurs. And of course, there’s an element of wish fulfillment in the thought of hiding out with heaps of treasure and shooting flames at people who annoy you—not to mention how amazing it would be to have a magical friend who might take you for a ride, or even fly you to wherever you’d like! For these, and many other reasons, fantasy books are filled with human-dragon interactions.
Inside books we can find dragons who terrorize people, like Smaug; or gods in disguise as dragons, who help people in their own way. Some feature shape-shifting people that become dragons. Occasionally we’ll even meet a dragon who acts as a taxi, serving out a sentence for the crime of first-degree maiden munching.
For now, let’s focus on working dragons: specifically, the ones that become friends with humans and work with them to achieve a greater goal. On such a list, many readers would expect Anne McCaffrey’s The Dragonriders of Pern to lead the way, and I will certainly give a nod to The White Dragon, from the Pern world. Sanderson has stated that this book holds a special place in inspiring Skyward, as one of the first “boy and his dragon” stories he ever read, and I can see some of the dragon Ruth’s mannerisms when reading about the starship M-Bot. Since many readers know about the telepathic dragons and fire lizards of Pern, however, I wanted to highlight some other dragon-human friendship stories in the literary world:
Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede
Princess Cimorene is not a proper princess. Nor is Kazul a typical dragon. But being a Dragon’s Princess is a respectable enough job for her family to leave Cimorene in peace. In Wrede’s world, humans and dragons can form friendships together at any age, if they are polite beings. The ability to make a good cherries jubilee turns out to be a helpful skill in building friendships as well. And when magic is involved, being rude has unexpected consequences.
How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell
A favorite saying of mine is “Never judge a book by its movie.” The How to Train Your Dragon book vs. film is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Happily, both are delightful—a rare occurrence. The book shares similar heart and whimsy in introducing Hiccup and Toothless. Book Hiccup is a small boy, younger than in the movie, out of sync with his dad and his age-mates. Book Toothless is a cheeky little rogue, also different than movie Toothless. Watching how the Hooligan Tribe and dragons learn to work together is an entertaining experience in every storytelling format; however, if you are an audiobook reader, I would encourage you to track down the artwork while you listen. It’s half the fun of the book!
Joust by Mercedes Lackey
Many readers know Lackey for her Valdemar series and its telepathic Companions. In Joust, Lackey sets her story in an Ancient Egypt-like world filled with flying warrior dragons. The slave boy Vetch dreams of a better life. His first step after becoming a dragon boy is to bond a newborn dragon—then his world changes in many ways. This first book in Dragon Jousters series will remind some readers of the classic story Dragon’s Blood, by Jane Yolen, another of Sanderson’s Skyward inspiration stories. Lackey’s series quickly moves beyond those surface similarities with the Yolen book, however, due to worldbuilding choices and deeper plot elements which I personally prefer.
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
This first novel in Novik’s series combines the Napoleonic era, alternative history, a young ship’s captain, and an extremely intelligent dragon together to create the winning chemistry that drives her story. Temeraire is a charming and demanding creature from the moment he hatches, sending his captain’s world wildly off course. As he undergoes the trials of a Royal Navy captain becoming a dragon captain in His Majesty’s Aerial Corps, William Laurence experiences a number of culture shocks in his new line of service. Along the way, he builds strong friendships that help both man and dragon survive many trials.
Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb
Dragon Keeper is the first book of The Rain Wild Chronicles, which is the fourth series in Hobb’s collective Realm of the Elderlings universe. By reading it independently of the other books set in this world, you’ll find a few mysteries about dragons discovered in earlier books are already known to these mostly new characters. Hobb is known for her character development, and this strength is on full display as she slowly builds up the complexity of personalities, motives, and the relationships of dragons and keepers. Some dragons are friendlier than the others, just like the people.
…I know, I did not include Eragon. I’m sorry to the Eragon fans—but what other human-dragon working friendships books do you recommend, or feel like I missed?
Deana Whitney is a historian, baker, JordanCon Workshop Director, and Brandon Sanderson beta reader. Telepathic companions have been on her mind recently with the annual loss of her voice due to allergies. It would be so useful to mentally send out your thoughts when your voice failed.