Review: “The Art of the Dragon” by Sean McMullen

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Dragon FountainOne of the more challenging areas of writing today is cross-genre speculative fiction, where (as one example) elements drawn from both fantasy and science fiction come together in a single story with a contemporary setting. Not only must an author create internally consistent fantasy elements (such as a dragon), those elements also must mesh seamlessly with the science and society of our modern world. Thus when an author succeeds at making everything work together in such a cross-genre piece, the payoff can be great.

Sean McMullen’s1 newest story, “The Art of the Dragon”, is one such successful genre-melding work. The story appears in the Aug/Sept 2009 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF). From the very first sentence, the reader is likely to be hooked: “I was there when the dragon first appeared — and ate the Eiffel Tower.”

“The Art of the Dragon” follows the mystery of why a two-mile long dragon suddenly appears and sets out on a worldwide dining tour (of which the Eiffel Tower is only the first course).  The story’s details feel right, from humanity’s initial reactions to the dragon through the emergence of the Dragonists. McMullen’s main character embodies a fair degree of complexity for a 25-page story, yet his actions remain both plausible and understandable throughout. In contrast, the dragon’s motivations initially are incomprehensible to both the main character and the reader, setting the stage for an intriguing story of discovery.

The pacing of the story is effective. Although a lot of ground is covered (geographically, chronologically and plot-wise), it never feels rushed. The one component of the story that seems underutilized is the cast of secondary characters. In particular, one supporting character seems destined for full development, but in the end exists solely to advance the plot at a critical point. Ultimately the story succeeds without McMullen needing to flesh out those secondary characters — I just wonder if doing so could have pushed the story up yet another notch.

As I stated in a previous post,2 “The Art of the Dragon” is one of my favorite stories from the current Aug/Sept 2009 issue of F&SF. Whether writing fantasy or science fiction (or a combination of both), Sean McMullen has demonstrated himself to be an accomplished storyteller.

  1. Australian Sean McMullen has written both science fiction and fantasy. His debut novels — Voices In The Light (1994) and Mirrorsun Rising (1995) — were rewritten and combined for a publication in the US as Souls In The Great Machine (1999). More recently, McMullen has written a number of fantasy/cross-genre novels in his Moonworld Saga, including The Time Engine which was published in August 2008. McMullen also appeared in the April/May 2009 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction with the story “The Spiral Briar”. McMullen’s official web site can be found at: []
  2. Review: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Note: That review contains an image of the cover from the Aug/Sept issue of F&SF, with artwork based on McMullen’s “The Art of the Dragon”. []

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