Wyrd & Wonder is about celebrating the fantastic – and aren’t dragons emblematic of Fantasy?
So how come we don’t actually see them that often? Think about it: we consider them genre staples, but they’re actually pretty scarce on the shelves. How many dragons have you seen lately?
So I thought I’d gather together some of my favourite dragon-books to help out other dragon-seekers – including a few books you almost certainly haven’t heard of!
The Tale of Lanen Kaelar trilogy is…well, put it this way: I’ve never met another person who’s read it. Which is a shame, because it’s a very beautiful, albeit pretty unusual, series of books.
It looks pretty conventional at first glance: Lanen has grown up tall and strong and plain, and dreaming of dragons. When her father dies, she seizes the chance to run off on the adventure she’s always longed for – journeying to the Dragon Isle, where grows the miraculous lansip trees (whose leaves and fruit heal wounds and even reverse aging) under the care of the True Dragons.
It’s been a century since anyone made it to the Isle, and no one but Lanen really believes in capital-d Dragons. But when circumstances align to bring her to those distant shores, she finds that her dreams were all wrong – in that they didn’t come close to capturing the true wonder of what she finds there.
It’s a typical Medieval-esque setting, a great big land divided into four kingdoms, but it’s surprisingly well fleshed-out. The first book, however, takes place almost entirely on the Dragon Isle, and its in the creation of her different species – and their history and interactions with each other – that Kerner really shines. The Kantri, as the dragons call themselves, have an intricate culture of their own – one detail I absolutely adored was the formal ritual poses they used to communicate all kinds of things to each other, adding emphasis, context or connotation to their speech – and good reasons for having withdrawn from humans. The trilogy as a whole follows Lanen and the king of the Kantri, Akhor, as they work together to bridge the differences between their two peoples – and save the Kantri from slow annihilation.
Dragonsbane takes a bunch of traditional tropes, and flips them all over the place. Jenny Waywest is a witch in the poor, bitter Winterlands – and not a powerful witch, either, something she tries to be mature about, but which is a deep, private hurt. Part of the reason she’s not so powerful is that she’s the partner – not wife – of John Aversin, the bespectacled, scholarly lord of the Winterlands, the only man in living history to have slain a dragon. Having a life that’s not devoted to the study of magic – and loving a man and giving him two sons definitely means splitting her priorities – is a good part of why she’s so weak, magically.
And now she’s going to have even less time to study, because John is needed to slay another dragon.
What makes Dragonsbane special is, first off, Hambly’s incredibly beautiful prose, which is rich, lush, and lyrical. Seriously, it’s exquisite. But Dragonsbane also makes dragons beautiful, despite the fact that they’re very much seen as monsters in the Winterlands world. Hambly imbues dragons with awe and wonder, makes them something truly glorious – beings worthy of worship, even, though none of the characters happen to agree with me… And there’s so many little worldbuilding details – specifically about dragons – that just delight me; like the reason dragons hoard gold…
If you’re a fan of dragons, you’ve probably checked out this series already, but just in case you haven’t, allow me to introduce you! In the world of Temeraire, the Napoleonic Wars are going strong – but countries aren’t just fighting with armies and navies: they have aerial corps made up of dragons! Some of the dragon-rider tropes are present here – dragons imprint on a single person, their ‘captain’, but they’re so big that they also have entire crews who ride around on them and fight from their backs. The dragons are also sentient/sapient, with the powers of speech; they’re just as much thinking, feeling beings as the humans who crew them.
The series starts with navy captain Laurence accidentally ending up the captain of a captured dragon egg, one no one in Britain seems able to identify. Temeraire is the dragon who hatches from that egg, and he and Laurence are immediately enrolled in training to join Britain’s aerial corps. It’s the characters that make it shine – Temeraire is just delightful – and the relationships between them; the bond that grows between Laurence and Temeraire is a really beautiful, joyous thing to behold. The worldbuilding is also phenomenal, particularly as the series goes on and we get to see how different countries and cultures interact with dragons around the world – not everywhere has the same set-up as England, and some are very different indeed! Seeing how different cultures have incorporated dragons, or been influenced by them – how different peoples have found ways to live alongside them, or worship them, or make use of them… It’s just so freaking cool.
The dragons themselves are also amazing – Novik has created dozens of different species, each with their own size, colouring, mental capacity/IQ, temperament, and special abilities – which are not magical; the dragons here are purely natural, not supernatural, creatures. One of the ways in which this manifests is that most dragons can’t breathe fire; that’s an ability only held by certain dragon breeds, and jealously guarded by the humans who ‘own’ those breeds.
Novik skillfully weaves her dragons into the real historical record, as the wars fall out more or less as they did in history…but with some incredibly interesting twists. And although the series at first disguises itself as something purely fun, book by book it also tackles the place of dragons in society, their rights and roles and how humans ought to treat with them. It’s a seriously epic series that I can’t recommend any more enthusiastically!
Set in the same world as Kushiel’s Dart, Naamah’s Kiss follows Moirin, a young woman descended from angels on one side of her bloodline, and from the most ancient people of Ireland on the other. The gods of both sets of her ancestors have great plans for her, and from being raised in a cave in Eire she’s called to travel – not just to Terre d’Ange, the land of the father she’s never known, but even further beyond that. In the first book of the Naamah trilogy, she accompanies her teacher and companion to her world’s China, where she has to save a princess from a dragon – although not in the way you might expect!
I mean, this series is called Chorus of Dragons, so it’s not that weird that they feature. One of the things that struck me when I first read Ruin of Kings is that Lyons’ dragons feel like dragons – the old classic kind; enormous, terrifying, magical, capable of speech… But Lyons’ signature is taking classic tropes and completely redoing them, not so much subverting expectations as blowing them out of the water – so the very-classical dragons have some seriously nontraditional features. I can’t tell you what they are, because major spoilers, but I urge you to pick up this series. I mean, it’s ridiculously awesome whether you’re into dragons or not, but if you are into dragons, you really have no excuse for not checking it out.
It’s wyverns, not dragons, that first appear in the Traitor Son cycle – but when the dragons do show up, hoo boy. Here, dragons are multi-dimensional beings of immense power, more than mere mortals could ever comprehend – and the feuds between them can break and end worlds. As the series goes on, it becomes clearer and clearer to the human characters that the disaster they’ve been swept up in is indeed one of these feuds, and the way that plays out is just marvelous. I really love what Cameron’s done with his dragons in this series, and if you have the patience to get through the ‘human bits’, it’s an excellent read for dragon-lovers!
The Heartstrikers series is freaking awesome. No, seriously: Aaron has created a slightly-in-the-future world where magic has woken up again, and the dragons that have slept for millennia have woken with it. Julius is the youngest and least-loved member of clan Heartstriker – the largest dragon clan in the world. He’s least-loved because he’s a complete disgrace of a dragon – not sneaky or conniving or cruel at all, to the point that his mother binds him into his human form and kicks him out of the mountain, to prove himself or die.
Aaron could have played this for laughs, and I’m not denying that there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in this series. But it’s also a deeply interesting, and deeply meaningful, series, hopepunk in the extreme, with really fabulous worldbuilding and characters. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Heartstriker clan have feathered dragon forms, like Quetzalcoatl! (Anyone else remember the quetzalcoatl dragons from the Dragonology books?)
As the series progresses, Julius and the allies he gathers around himself are set to redefine what it means to be a dragon – and seriously, you’ll never see it all coming. It’s sheer brilliance, and a must-read for any dragon fan!
Dragonhaven revolves around Smokehill National Park – a wildlife preserve for some of the last dragons in the world – and what happens when young Jake, who’s been raised at the park, finds a dead mother dragon, a dead poacher – and a living baby dragon. McKinley has an excellent track record when it comes to her non-human species/characters, and her take on dragons is just incredible. She absolutely nails how alien and different non-human sapience would be – and how difficult, but rewarding, it would be to try and connect with it. Not everyone enjoys the sort of rambly first-person style of Dragonhaven, but if you do, or can put up with it, it’s well worth it.
Technically, A-Through-L isn’t a dragon – he’s a wyverary; the child of a wyvern and a library. And he’s absolutely wonderful. This is one of my favourite books in all the world, and there’s no way it wasn’t making it onto this list: A-Through-L is one of the sweetest characters in all fiction, and his adventures alongside human girl September in Fairyland are not to be missed – under any circumstances!
The dragon here doesn’t get much screentime, but she is pulling the strings of just about everything. In Bear’s story about the battle between humanity and faeries, she freely explores with how multi-faceted and slippery myths and stories are – and in line with that, her dragon is actually All Dragons, shifting form from moment to moment in a way that’s heartbreakingly beautiful. I love this series for its own sake, but Mist – said dragon – is really something special, and her place in the meta-myth – in the heart of the world, the heart of all magic, the heart of all legends and truths – is a genuinely amazing exploration of the dragon motif.
Duane’s dragons – which show up in book two of the series, Door Into Shadow – are some of the most unique I’ve ever seen. They’re also some of the most fun, as characters. The problem is, I don’t feel like I can tell you anything about them at all, because what they do and how they work are pretty major spoilers. Can you just take my word for it that if you’re looking for non-traditional takes on dragons, this is one series you really shouldn’t miss out on?
Yeah, it’s a kid’s/MG book – but you know what, Dragon With a Chocolate Heart is brilliant. (And I had to post both the US and UK covers because frankly, they’re both brilliant too). The story follows Aventurine, a young dragon who gets turned into a human when she sneaks out of her family’s mountain. Her unrepentant fierceness and disdain for human social moores is both brilliant and funny – and sometimes makes you pause and really think about why humans act the way we do. Dragon culture demands that every dragon find their Passion, and Aventurine doesn’t let being turned human stop her – in fact, being in human form is pretty helpful, since she decides her Passion is making chocolate, and that’s much easier to do with hands!
It sounds like a silly little story, but the thing is that it’s not. The best kids’ stories don’t talk down to children, and this one doesn’t – there’s plenty here for an adult to enjoy, lots of sneaky smart points and emotional twists and turns. It is incredibly fun, but I also love it for being incredibly meaningful and clever too, and if you’re into dragons (and looking for a comfort read) it’s definitely one to check out!
(There’s also some lovely sequels Aventurine features in too…)
Despite the title of the opening book of The Dagger and the Coin series, there aren’t actually any dragons present. Instead, what we have is a world shaped by dragons; one where all the races of humanity are the creations of the advanced dragons who once ruled the world. By the opening of the first book humanity has long since overthrown their slave-masters – but that doesn’t mean the affairs of dragons can’t reach through the ages to still affect the descendants of their creations.
Bonus: Sea Dragons!
Cantor for Pearls is the second book in the Twin Kingdoms Romances, and I very much urge you to check out book one – Cantor stands alone pretty well, but the first book introduces the characters and the world. Either way, Cantor follows Always Falling – an agender, asexual individual who uses it pronouns – when Always is called back to visit its family. Its family aren’t exactly the best, but they work closely with beautiful, fully sapient sea dragons, and Always has missed the sea serpents very, very much. As they’ve missed it!
It’s a beautiful, gentle story with a non-sexual romance, and genuinely lovely sea dragons who are fabulous characters in their own right. I adore this series, and this book, and more people need to be reading it!
The Bone Ships is set in a world – specifically, an archipelago – whose very existence revolves around sea dragons: the ships of the archipelago’s peoples are made of sea dragon bone (hence the title), and this influences every aspect of the cultures involved. But the sea dragons have been extinct for generations – which means no new ships. Given that the sea-faring peoples are locked in an eternal war, that’s a problem.
Given that a single sea dragon has been spotted far to the north… It’s an even bigger problem.
In order to prevent an unimaginably vicious war – which is exactly what will happen, if word gets out that there’s a new potential source of dragon bone – the characters of Bone Ships are off to try and escort the sea dragon to safety. That’s a difficult, complicated task to begin with, but politics, magic, and mercenaries will all make it more difficult yet…
And that’s it! I hope you’ve found a few books to interest you – and why don’t you share your own favourite dragon-books in the comments below? I’m always looking for new reads!