The King’s Dragon by Jon Mollison is, at its heart, a story about old friends. Men who’ve journeyed together, fought alongside one another, and gone their separate paths, only for fate to bring them together again for a time. Not only is this the main focus of this story, it’s also the aspect of which it excels at best.
The story opens with a bit of bar room brawling, when King Alaric orders the arrest of Jason Taverner, to which Jason responds by demanding trial by combat. Jason fends off the king long enough to land a blow against him, so Alaric reveals his true intentions for coming to see Jason. Alaric informs Jason that a fire-breathing dragon has been destroying various towns across the land, and left without any other option, he needs to enlist Jason’s help to defeat it.
Jason spends the first half of the story trying to avoid going on this quest and finding it harder to do so as the story goes on. See, Jason is a former soldier who fought alongside Alaric, before The King took the throne, though now he’s old and balding and just wants the simple life of a town bartender. Usually stories where the hero initially refuses the call to adventure it’s due to immaturity, but Jason is middle-aged war veteran with a daughter to take care of. So his reasons for wanting to stay out of battle and keep to himself are a lot more compelling. Though he’s eventually persuaded to leave the town that he calls home and venture out into the world on his quest.
Jason travels through a few of the villages which the dragon had destroyed, and we see him soften to the idea of going back into battle. He talks with an old man who searches through the burnt remains of his old house for anything worth salvaging, in what is a fairly touching moment. But sadly, this chapter, the third one in the story, kinda fizzles out rather than ending with a bang like the others.
The following chapter is not only exciting throughout, but also finishes on a rather exciting moment. By this point in the story, the stakes have been clearly laid out, with failure resulting in sweeping consequences across the kingdom. And the chapter is mostly a verbal spar between Jason and King Alaric, rather than a fight to the death.
Yes, despite the man fighting a dragon on the cover, there really isn’t a whole lot of physical conflict in this book. The battle with the dragon only lasts a few pages, but that isn’t to say that the story isn’t action-packed. Most of the action, especially early on in the story, comes more from the conflict between Jason and his old friend, King Alaric.
Events of the story are painted with a very broad brush, metaphorically speaking, that creates a nice image in the reader’s mind while allowing him to fill in the details with imagination. Most often, the prose focuses on just the right elements to show what is needed for the story, without bogging the reader down with page after page of description.
Though the story is not without flaw. Occasionally, a word will be used that, while not actually misspelled, was the wrong one, jarring the reader out of the narrative for the moment. It’s possible that these errors were fixed in the Five Dragons omnibus, but I cannot say for certain as I read the original release of The King’s Dragon.
I’m also not sure about Jason riding his horse, Clodhopper, at a canter throughout most of chapter three. Clodhopper is described as a horse good as any other in Jason’s village, yet the animal shows an ability that is beyond that of most horses. It’s not until late into the night that Jason allows Clodhopper a bite to eat, and the animal’s thirst is never actually mentioned.
These are simply minor nitpicks, however, and I mention them because they’re the only problems with the book that stuck out at me. If we are to guide readers to books which they might enjoy as well as improve our writing craft, then we must be completely honest in our review of these books. That my criticisms of the story are so minor speaks to how much I enjoyed it.
But what really makes this story exceptional, what really makes it stand out to me, is how well the friendship between Jason and King Alaric is written. By the time the story starts, they’ve known each other for quite some time, with a history together that could easily span several other stories before. Through the span of a few short chapters, the wealth and depth of a lifelong friendship is conveyed quite well.
The King’s Dragon is a finely executed story unlike much of what we see in the short fiction market today, with characters typically not seen there either. It’s an entertaining tale that feels just the right length needed to tell its story. I look forward to reading the rest of the Five Dragons novelettes, and further stories from Jon Mollison.