SFF in Conversation

Aliette de Bodard: My favourite dragons and how I designed mine

Howdy and a happy Thursday to all! Today, we are delighted to host Aliette de Bodard, celebrating the release of her new novel, The House of Binding Thorns (which is out this week in the UK and the US) and talking about DRAGONS.

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Here Be Dragons: my favourite dragons and how I designed mine

It will probably not be a surprise that I love dragons–a lot of fantasy and SF readers also do! There’s something intrinsically fascinating, for me, about flying, graceful reptiles with magical powers.

You’ll notice I don’t say “reptiles that breathe fire”, and the main reason for that is that the first dragons I encountered weren’t the Western ones that needed to be killed by the likes of Saint George, but the r?ng, the Vietnamese dragons, who tend to live underwater, have deers’ antlers and a long serpentine body but generally no wings, and who are generally benevolent entities who dispense rain (or catastrophic floods if angered).

As I read more and more genre, I met more and more dragons of all kinds: below are just a few of my favourites (picking just 5 was a bit like picking favourite children–it’s hard, and I always feel as though I’m betraying someone by leaving them out!)

Cast in Honor

•The dragons in Michelle Sagara’s Elantra: these are dragons in human shape. They breathe fire and terribly possessive of their hoard, except that “hoard” covers vastly different things depending on the dragon–my favourite being the Archon, who considers the library his hoard and will reduce to cinder anyone oblivious enough to challenge him.

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•In the Vlad Taltos series by Steven Brust, the House of the Dragon doesn’t feature actual dragons, except on coats-of-arms, so the Dragons are human or at any rate human-shaped. They’re master strategists, always keen to get into ranged battles, and with a particular sense of honour that leads them to challenge people at the drop of a hat (or more generally a sword!)

Spirited Away

•Haku in Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away: this is a weird and wonderful movie where Sen/Chihiro has to navigate a bathhouse for spirits to return to her family. She’s helped by Haku, a boy who’s forgotten his own name and turns out to be the spirit of the river, who saved Chihiro when she was little–he can take the shape of a lean silver dragon, as befits a water spirit.

The Very Best of Kate Elliott

•In Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy, dragons aren’t human (well, mostly not): they’re forces of nature in the spirit world, so huge and so full of magic that they reshape reality in their passage. Julie Dillon’s wonderful cover of The Very Best of Kate Elliott captures the sheer, crushing, awesome size of them.

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•Silchas Ruin in Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen: there’s no shortage of dragons in this epic series, whether shapeshifters or not, but my favourite one is Silchas Ruin, who spends most of one book betrayed and imprisoned, and another one paying the debt he owes (at a terribly high cost). Also, he fights with two swords, never forgets a slight, and is definitely the kind of person you’d rather have on your side!

By now you’ll have worked out that I have a bit of a fascination for dragons who can take human form–and that’s exactly what I did when I put dragons in my own novels. Both The House of Shattered Wings and its sequel The House of Binding Thorns are set in a ruined, decayed Paris suffering the after-effects of a devastating magical war that left magical residues everywhere, the monuments in ruin and the Seine black with magical pollution. And there are dragons: they’re Vietnamese, and in human shape, though when they get annoyed or when they want to, you can see the scales on their skin and the stubs of deers’ antlers at their temples. They control water, though generally not a large scale like a flood: they can make use of the humidity in the air or perform some spells like rust a lock from the inside.

Remember the bit where the dragons of my childhood were generally underwater spirits? Well, I kept that, too. I designed a dragon kingdom under the Seine, a once grand, magical and powerful nation that was now falling into ruin and decay. By and large, the dragons in my books aren’t doing well: many of them are sick from the pollution, their kingdom is gangrened by the traffic of a magical drug that gradually destroys users’ lungs, and, worst of all, their existence is now known to a lot of a magical factions.

(in case you have any doubts: yes, I’m a bit of an unkind author when it comes to my characters…)

In The House of Shattered Wings there was only time for a brief glimpse of the dragon kingdom as the characters went through on their way to somewhere else, but it was my favourite piece of the book. So much, in fact, that when my editor at Gollancz, Gillian Redfearn, pointed out that these scenes didn’t really advance the plot and might need to be cut, I rewrote them to be integral to said plot.

For The House of Binding Thorns, obviously, I wanted to spend more time in the dragon kingdom. So I made it central to the plot from the get-go, with on the one hand, tricky negotiations to make a diplomatic alliance between the kingdom and the Parisian House of Hawthorn–and on the other, having a main character, Thuan, who’s a dragon in disguise, infiltrated into said House Hawthorn and trying to work out what’s going on and why. He was a lot of fun to write–as were all the other dragons!

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Aliette de Bodard writes speculative fiction: her short stories have garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and th British Science Fiction Association Awards. She is the author of The House of Shattered Wings, a novel set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which won the 2015 British Science Fiction Association Award, and its standalone sequel The House of Binding Thorns. She lives in Paris.

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