Review: 'Fire and Fur: The Last Sorcerer Dragon', by Roger C. Schlobin
What do university professors do after they retire? If they are like Dr. Roger C. Schlobin, Ph.D., they write a fantasy novel based upon Chinese mythology, self-publish it (in an unusual size; 9” x 6”), and try to get it sold to be made into an animated feature film.
Good luck. It seems too far outside the mainstream of animated fantasy cinema to obtain the backing necessary to become an animated movie. Those have production budgets averaging $50 million dollars and up today. As a fantasy novel, however …
Fire and Fur begins/ends with Ao Rue, the last sorcerer dragon, and Mei-chou, his sole remaining attendant cat, slowly waiting for death in a cave in the vast inland Gobi desert.
This cat was old. Deeply hollowed in the flanks, given more to sleep than to waking. Her fur was matted and uneven. She was never too far away. The dragon could hardly focus on her where she dozed between his eyes. But she was familiar. They had been together for a long time. A deep, pained affection flashed across his burning eyes, replaced quickly with arrogance.
It wouldn’t do to let the little devil know. Who could guess how much longer she might live? And then our small joining would only be more pain.
As the dragon recalled the once-bright silver-gray fur, vaguely marked with dark stripes, the golden eyes, the once full and sleek body – he wondered who she would talk to if he passed on first. A small snort of blue-gray smoke popped from the nostrils: passed on first? Dragons always pick their own time! Well, they were supposed to, supposed to. In those dark, demon-filled days, nothing had been natural, nothing right. The cat sighed with seeming pleasure as the small smoke cloud rolled over her, billowed up and out the cave mouth. (p. 4)
The dragon and the cat spend their days trying to one-up each other in sarcasm, recalling their past glories. Mei-chou can always win by alluding to “the Fair Nü-kua”. “STOP!” and “WE DO NOT DISCUSS HER!” Ao Rue will thunder. (p. 8, 10)
The main story is a flashback to when the world belonged to the dragons:
Ao Rue’s long, silver body moved easily through his natural environment. He slid in lazy S’es that disguised both power and speed. Occasionally he’d snap his broad wings out in contempt of the water’s power and turn back somersaults and figure 8’s. If he thought no one was looking, he’d practice some of the winged acrobatics of the mating ritual. He opened both wings fully, like large shimmering shells against the massive currents, and did the difficult Sphere of Utter Devotion, rotating slowly with his head thrown back and pointed to the surface. His face remained calm and beatific as his muscles cracked with the effort. Style … show no strain! Yet, despite being well into breeding age, he was still alone, but he thought often of a miraculous someone to whom he could give his life and transform his world. Other times, he sulked in the belief that there was no one, would never be anyone, and wondered why he bothered to do anything. As the Crystal Palace of the Kaochang came into view, glittering against the blue-black of the deep sea, he thought gain of the same uninspiring females that would arouse neither his attention nor his glands. He twinged within his dignity-shrouded loneliness. (p. 12)
The dragons have become decadent. Ao Rue “cringed to hear, once again, the self-righteous, grinding tones of Yün-t’ung, Nurturer of the Young, assailing the Council. She was going on about more help for the dragonettes’ educations. Little fools, get everything done for them. No wonder they could do less and less for themselves each passing day.” (ibid.)
As Ao Rue muses during the Council meeting, tuning out the vain inanities and mutual flatteries that the dragons blather, he is suddenly horrified to realize that his old enemies Yolbas and Lei-kung, who are always promoting themselves, are not mouthing harmless boastings now:
‘My noble friends, what we propose is nothing less than to change the face of our world,’ Yolbas bellowed over the numerous speculations that had sprung up. The noise stopped. The audience again in claw, Yolbas went on. ‘For too long, we dragons have ruled our seas unopposed, unchallenged. We have grown lazy and soft. Too long we have wallowed in effete poetry and dead history, composing symphonies and maudlin verse, reading and not acting.’ The last with a pointed look at Ao Rue. ‘What we propose, through the mighty magic of Lei-kung, is to drain the sea into the deep core of the earth and raise us and the land to the sun!’ (p. 14)
Ao Rue recognizes that Yolbas has taken credit for his own complaints and used them to springboard his own plan to make himself and Lei-kung seem progressive and innovative. But Yolbas and Lei-kung do not realize what they are meddling with. As Ao Rue explains later to his only friend, Feng-po:
‘Ao Rue, could he really read these?’
‘Of course, he could; there are still a few of us who can read.’
Feng-po was nonplussed. ‘You can read? Why bother? Dragons remember everything!’
‘Dragons remember far less than you’d think, my tail-chasing friend. What they recall, they reshape to suit themselves. Dragons are incredible egotists; they think that all creation radiates out from them. You’ve seen all those pictures of the world – superimposed male and female dragons stretching their pinions to the very edges of the circle. They think everything’s theirs. That’s how they can hunt, kill, and manipulate other creatures without caring. After all, it’s tough to share a whole world.’ Ao Rue couldn’t resist the last bit of sarcasm. ‘Now we could finish this if you’d stop asking questions. I’ll explain things to you after.’ (p. 16)
The explanation is a long one. Basically, dragons evolved on the land, not in the seas that they now assume that they have always ruled. They returned to the land once, and were driven back into the seas by an enemy called Azghun Demons, so long ago that the Azghun Demons are considered mythical monsters by modern dragons. “‘So, the dragons tried to get away from them, but there was nowhere to go, so they caused the seas to rise and cover most of the land.’” (p. 19) The Demons were lured into deep caverns that were sealed off from the seas. “‘When Lei-kung drains the sea, I think he’ll free the Demons.’” (ibid.)
The terraforming of the earth to get rid of the world-covering sea turns the few islands into mountaintops, enabling the cats to come down and spread out once more. They remember more than most dragons do, and are equally skeptical of Lei-kung’s allowing for the Azghun Demons. Ao Rue’s friend Feng-po introduces him to Nü-kua, the only female dragon who interests him romantically, even if she is beguiled by Yolbas’ grand plans. When Yolbas can’t be dissuaded from boasting too much to the powerless Ao Rue, Lei-kung’s other henchmen consider getting rid of Ao Rue just in case he is more dangerous to their plans than it seems. One of Lei-kung’s pawns boasts of their power to one of the strange fuzzy mammals that have appeared recently. One of his taunts refers to Ao Rue as “that blue-eyed freak”.
Must find Mei-chou; she must know, the cat realizes. Only one with blue eyes. He’ll be hers; she is the First of the First; the Guide. But only one. Could he save the dragons from the Azghun Demons? Would he care? Only one. How could the dragons be so mindless to leave themselves with only one? (p. 56)
As the Azghun Demons emerge, Ao Rue and Mei-chou, his new cat friend, fight them. In addition to saving all Dragonkind, Ao Rue is especially concerned for Nü-kua. But the dragon and cat are only two. Just what the Azghun Demons are, and what Nü-kua is like, may surprise the reader.
Schlobin seems torn between leaving an opening for a sequel, and wrapping everything up neatly for the potential movie. But on the whole, Fire and Fur is an imaginative saga with unusual characters, and worth your $6.63.
(I once reviewed another Oriental fantasy written and vanity-published by a retired U.S. Navy admiral, The Gentle Dragon by Joseph A. Coates; San Diego, CA, Lane & Associates, May 1979, 329 pages. Admiral Coates had been stationed in Japan for many years, and had soaked up a deep knowledge of Japanese mythology. His novel was quite good and would have made an excellent animated Oriental adventure fantasy. Alas, nobody knew about Adm. Coates’ novel, and it went out of print almost immediately.)
Read more: "Of Age and Wisdom", a short story included in an earlier edition of Fire and Fur.