Title: The Dragon Business
Author: Kevin J. Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5
King Cullin may be known as “the Dragon Slayer,” but he fears his son’s legacy will be as “King Maurice Who Speaks with Proper Grammar.” The boy keeps his nose buried in parchments, starry-eyed at the idea of noble knights and eager to hand royal gold to any con man hawking an unicorn horn. Tonight, though, Cullin will educate the prince in the truth behind minstrels’ silly songs of glory.
Long ago, in a kingdom, well, not that far from here really, young Cullin traveled the countryside as squire to brave Sir Dalbry, along with Dalbry’s trusted sidekick Reeger, selling dragon-protection services to every kingdom with a coffer. There were no dragons, of course, but with a collection of severed alligator heads and a willingness to play dirty, the trio of con men was crushing the competition. Then along came Princess Affonyl.
Tomboyish and with a head for alchemy, Affonyl faked a dragon of her own, escaped her arranged marriage, and threw in with Cullin and company. But with her father sending a crew of do-gooder knights to find her, the dragon business just got cutthroat.
What fun! I read the synopsis of this story, that it was about con artists slaying false dragons, and thought it such an unique twist on the usual adventure trope that I knew I had to give it a try, and I’m glad I did.
Anderson crafted this tale wonderfully, formatting it so that King Cullin is telling his sheltered son a grandiose tale of his past shenanigans in order to learn him up on the way the real world works. It follows a group of con men who prey upon the simple-minded, gullible, and superstitious peoples of the (many) kingdoms, in a world where con artists, swindlers, and money grubbers abound. It paints a fantastical rendition of the world we live in today.
And yet, even though our ‘dragon-slayers’ are making a living rather dishonestly, selling a service nobody needs, you can’t help but like them. Reeger is rather crude ─ in his humor, behavior, and lifestyle ─ but he’s also very good at what he does (the dirty work), a loyal friend, and in a way charming for his preferences of ‘latrine refurbishing’ to high courtly politics. Sir Dalbry is a victim of his own trade. Swindled out of his inheritance at a young age by a group of con men, he has vowed to avenge his honor for having run away. His current methods are questionable, but even so, he insists on retaining a sense of ‘knightly honor and nobility’ ─ to the point where it nearly costs him his life. Cullin is an apt and clever sidekick. Tempted by dreams of starting fresh in the new land across the sea, fantasizing about someday marrying a princess and gaining a kingdom and riches of his own, he serves as Sir Dalbry’s squire. Affonyl, the newest member of their band, is a runaway princess who faked her own death by dragon attack in order to escape her fate as a princess. She would much rather study alchemy and gallivant across the country as a person than marry a silver-tongued and sticky-fingered duke as a princess, because as it happens, princesses aren’t people.
The writing is witty, whimsical, and humorous from the first page to the last. Minstrels’ songs go viral, one town’s local Renaissance Faire is ‘futuristic’, newspapers (like the Olden Tymes) are transcribed by monks, purified guano and bone dust are thought the more active ingredients to pain killer than the milk of poppy. On and on, every page is filled with crafty and silly details about life in medieval times that those of us who are more accustomed to the more epic, hard-core fantasy don’t usually think about ─ like hawking seagull guano as a miracle fertilizer.
Yet through the ridiculousness are strings of heart that do more than entertain us, they endear us to the characters, who they are and what they’re searching for. Sir Dalbry wants to regain his honor, following a code of knightly nobility to a fault that nearly gets him killed. Reeger wants to raise enough money to establish his own tavern. Cullin wants a better life, but looks for it in the wrong places. He realizes, after he gets what he thinks he wants, that it’s not what he wanted all along. The meaning of bravery and honor, friendship, and loyalty are all currents carrying this story and the character of its heroes forward.
I hope Maurice gets as much from his father’s tales as we do.