A reader recently asked me where to start with books featuring dragons, and I ended up giving a handful of recommendations featuring different types of dragon portrayals. I thought it would be interesting to write a blog post about these different portrayals, plus provide some dragon book recommendations for other readers, so here we are!
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1. Villainous Dragons
In western literature, anyway, dragons were originally villainous figures, in keeping with Revelation’s portrayal of Satan as “the dragon.” They were huge and dangerous, often intelligent but malevolent—or, at the very least, greedy.
Smaug in The Hobbit* is a great example of this, as are Tolkien’s other dragons in The Silmarillion* or even Farmer Giles of Ham*. The same trope comes up in Wayne Thomas Batson’s Door Within trilogy*, and there are villainous dragons opposite the supportive dragons in many dragon rider series including The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini*.
2. Epic Dragons
This is one of the most well-known portrayals of dragons: dragons that are there for epic adventures. These are the dragons you see in dragon-rider stories like The Inheritance Cycle. They’re intelligent, but they bond with humans (or elves, or whatever other fantasy species) and support them in their quests. These dragons are often also huge and dangerous (at least to their enemies), retaining vestiges of the original, more villainous portrayals of western dragons.
I’ve seen dragons of this type in The Inheritance Cycle (which inspired me to write dragon riders of my own, though that story is still in storage) and Melody Jackson’s Dragons’ Bane series* (which I haven’t managed to get through because the characters and their relationships are really not my style, but Melody is cool so I’ll mention them anyway). The Guardian dragons in Calligraphy Guild also resemble this trope, though they’re less of the adventurous type and more the stoic guardian type (as revealed in their name); they’re more aloof from humans than some other portrayals of “epic dragons.”
3. Whimsical Dragons
With “epic dragons” removing the “villainous” requirement for western dragons, portrayals of dragons continued to evolve and more whimsical portrayals were born. Miniature dragons, especially, as companions and pets started to crop up. Some retain their “epic” roots, with more serious and/or dangerous varieties; others are quite de-clawed and outright sweet.
Melody Jackson’s Dragons’ Bane series features miniature dragons that still lean toward “epic,” as does Calligraphy Guild. The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill* is a great example of really whimsical dragons, and some of the dragons in Calligraphy Guild lean more toward this end of the spectrum as well.
4. Dragons as More Creature than Character
Still other books feature dragons as lacking sentience, instead behaving within the world as animals, perhaps resembling creatures like Leviathan, Behemoth, and other dinosaurs. The Memoirs of Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan* is an excellent example of this approach done well! Dragons along these lines also have a place in Deseran, though not in the same part of the world as Calligraphy Guild; they’ll come along in later stories.
5. Mechanical Dragons
Taking dragons even further from sentience, some books feature mechanical dragons of one type or another. The Fire Rain Chronicles by Miranda Marie*, for example, which also features “epic dragons” and some “whimsical dragons.” Mechanical dragons might be the only type in the world, or they might be based on true dragons that are either still flying around or have since gone extinct. Mechanical dragons can also serve a variety of purposes.
Bonus: Eastern Dragons
Most of the examples I’ve mentioned have involved western dragons; I’m American, so those are what I’m most familiar with. However, Eastern dragons are also quite interesting! I’ve particularly gained a greater appreciation for them in reading comp titles for Calligraphy Guild. Eastern dragons showed up in Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan* (which I didn’t enjoy, overall) and in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin* (which I’d present as a better example due both to its better storytelling and its more focused attention on the dragons involved).
There are still more dragon categories I could go over—I haven’t talked about shapeshifting dragons or dragons who are the leading characters themselves, for example—but hopefully these provide a fun starting point! Comment below with your favorite dragon type and/or your favorite books about dragons!