Some of these reviews may contain spoilers. I will mark as appropriate.
The book I am currently reading is Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits, co-authored by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson. There are four 40-60 page short stories, and one 110 page novella. Of the five stories, my favorite thus far is "Hellhound," the short story written by McKinley. What follows is a short review of each story. I haven't finished the novella yet, so I'll post about that tomorrow.
"Phoenix," by Peter Dickinson
Leading off the collection, "Phoenix" tells the story of a young girl drawn into an ancient cycle surrounding the phoenix of legend, amusingly named "Sonny" by his current caretaker. The story doesn't really go anywhere, but the cyclic nature is kind of the point, so I understand that. What is intriguing is the way Dickinson works with that cyclic concept to reinvent the phoenix legend. In this version, the phoenix is tied to two priests during each of its life-cycles. They are both born at the same time, at the pinnacle of the cycle. One ages forward while the other ages backward. At each cycle, they switch places. The one aging forward starts going backward, and the one who went backward is reborn somewhere out in the world nearby. The jeopardy in the story comes from the uncertainty that the cycle will continue. The premise is interesting, but I feel it would have worked better with another twenty or thirty pages of action. Not much happens, and what little action occurs you learn about by being told of it, rather than seeing for yourself. The conclusion came too quickly- Dickinson jumps from introducing an interesting plot snarl that could cause difficulties right to the end without actually seeing those difficulties take shape or become real obstacles.
"Hellhound," by Robin McKinley
Definitely my favorite, but as with "Phoenix," I felt "Hellhound's" climax happened too quickly. McKinley does a remarkable job of quickly immersing us in her world, getting us emotionally involved with her characters, and then putting them into serious jeopardy, but I do not entirely believe in the method the heroine uses to escape that jeopardy. Despite the shock-and-horror filled denouement, I felt the major conflict was almost too easily won. But I adored the brother and sister who are the main characters, and McKinley's description of people's relationships with their animals is a reflection of her own deep devotion to her two "hellhounds," deerhound/greyhound mixes she has nicknamed "Chaos" and "Darkness" for her blog. Although main character Miri's "dog" is like no real dog in the world, McKinley's understanding of the human/pet connection is flawless and makes me yearn for a new dog!
"Fireworm," by Peter Dickinson
Perhaps the most complete of the short stories, Fireworm actually feels like a "traditional" short story with a beginning, middle, and end. It was well-plotted and paced, and had a very fitting ending. I enjoyed the way storytelling was woven into the tale, and how Dickinson relied heavily on mythic elements and legendary tropes. The story is a hero's transformation tale, taking us on the journey that turns unwanted orphan Tandin into a heroic Spirit Walker. It would take lots of space to discuss in detail each of the mythic ingredients Dickinson uses to spice his soup, but to name a few: journey into the Otherworld, physical transformation, born to no father/god for a father, paying a price for magic/knowledge, etc. Set in a primeval, pre-iron age world, the dichotomy of the ice of winter and glacier with the fire of mankind works brilliantly on both the physical and metaphoric levels. Dickinson also lets us see the "villains" of the story as sympathetic beings, a welcome change from the black/white, good/evil you see in many fairy-tale or myth based stories.
"Salamander Man" by Peter Dickinson
This story threw me for a bit of a loop. It also has all of its constituent parts in the right order, but although I understand what happens in the story, many of the motivations of the characters are non-existent. The central part of the story is the transformation of the main character into a giant man of flame. Yet he does not do this consciously, and the narrative even has to switch to third person omniscient to tell that part of the story because third person limited can't accurately describe what is happening to a character who understands almost nothing himself. In the end, what might have been spectacular is only interesting because you have no emotional involvement with the main character. I basically put it down and thought, "oh, whatever."
Tomorrow I will review First Flight.