Tor-Starscape Hardcover 2006
Long before House Stark warned that “Winter Is Coming,” before Jon Snow joined the Night’s Watch to guard against the King beyond the Wall and the Others, and before Queen Daenerys of the Targaryen dynasty hatched the three dragons Viserion, Rhaegal and Drogon, there was The Ice Dragon. First published in the 1980 anthology Dragons of Light, this children’s novella about a young girl’s special relationship with a dragon made of ice predates George R.R. Martin’s conception of his best-selling series A Song of Ice and Fire. In this story, now reprinted in hardcover with illustrations by Yvonne Gilbert, one finds themes that figure prominently in Martin’s later work.
George R.R. Martin, one of the masters of gritty realism in fantasy, writing a children’s story? It’s true. Working within the tighter constraints of a novella, in The Ice Dragon Martin achieves detailed characterization and a complex world through brief, impressionistic character descriptions and interactions while providing a story that should enchant children and adults alike.
Young Adara, the story’s heroine, is unlike other children her age. With her mother dying during childbirth in the harsh winter, people in Adara’s village believe some of the winter cold that killed her mother touched Adara as well. She is even detached from her father, sister and brother, preferring solitude over their companionship, especially when winter comes and the countryside is covered in snow. It is during the winter, when she builds snow castles for the ice lizards, that the Ice Dragon comes.
The Ice Dragon is feared by the people of her community, appearing in the sky only on the coldest days of winter. Unlike the dragons of the King’s dragonguard, of which Adara’s uncle Hal is a member, the Ice Dragon cannot be tamed, nor even touched – except by Adara. Thus that which separates Adara and the Ice Dragon from others unites the pair. However, the love they share is tested when the dragonriders of the enemy from the north threaten Adara’s family and village.
The Ice Dragon was published years before Martin started writing about A Song of Ice and Fire’s Westeros, but one can imagine it as a nursery tale from its northern lands. There is a king’s dragonguard from the south, a menace from the north, and a fascination with winter as something to be both feared and embraced. In Adara, one catches glimpses of Arya Stark and Dany Targaryen, but only glimpses; Adara has her own tale to tell and it would be unfair to burden her with the histories of Martin’s other characters.
I warmly recommend The Ice Dragon to fans of George R.R. Martin who need something to tide them over until A Dance with Dragons arrives, especially those who hope to one day pass their volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire on to children presently not old enough to appreciate Martin’s genius. At about one hundred pages, The Ice Dragon is a short tale, but having read it three times before writing this review I can attest that it rewards with repeated readings. It is suitable for children, with some violence and death (a characteristic of all good fairy tales), but nothing graphic. Gilbert’s illustrations achieve a children’s fantasy aesthetic in their imagination and beauty while maintaining the realism of the story. Although Adara may prefer the snow-covered fields in wintertime, The Ice Dragon can be best enjoyed on snowy days indoors in front of a warm fire.
© Arthur Bangs 2007