Posted by: kshayes513 | August 5, 2009

Reading: S. Andrew Swann

S Andrew Swann: The Dragons of the Cuyahoga

Sometimes a book makes nonsense out of the marketing execs’ determination to fit every title into neatly labeled genre slots.

Cuyahoga coverThe Dragons of the Cuyahoga doesn’t read like fantasy, despite the dragon on its cover, despite its publisher, the SF/F imprint Daw. It reads like a hard-boiled detective story.  And a very entertaining story it is, firmly rooted, like the best hard-boiled mysteries, in a particular city. The story ranges all over Cleveland from the river front to a wealthy enclave to the crime ridden alleys of East Cleveland. The hero is a cynical, old-school newspaper reporter, and almost all of the characters are the usual hard-boiled archetypes: corporate moguls and dealmakers, cops on the take, world-weary editors, and politicians on the make. The story circles around back-room power struggles and reluctant sources, with the occasional kidnapping or shootout, and plenty of twists and turns that kept me guessing right to the end.

Now here’s the almost: the murder victim happens to be a dragon, one of the moguls is another dragon, and other characters are elves, mages, barbarians and even a passing unicorn. They all live in Cleveland thanks to an interdimensional portal that opened over the football stadium ten years before. Very cool. I imagine it’s even more fun to read if you know the city and can populate all the story’s settings with dragons, mages, and seven-foot tall elves in police detective garb.

You can say “mixed genre” all you want, but if this were fantasy, a portal opening in Cleveland would take the hero right into that alternate universe on some questing adventure. Because it’s a mystery, our hero, Kline Maxwell, stays in Cleveland and tries to find out who is trying to make the dragon’s death look accidental.

Yes, I know there’s a genre called “paranormal mystery” now. However, paranormal mysteries seem to deal with ghosts, vampires, telepaths, werewolves, etc; and the paranormal detective typically also possesses some powers. There are plenty of times in the story when dogged reporter Maxwell would no doubt find these powers helpful, especially to stay alive. But such a wish would never enter his pragmatic, seen-it-all mind. And that’s what really nails this novel into the hard-boiled category for me: the narrative voice never wavers for an instant from Maxwell’s first person skeptical.

The more I think about genre, in books, comics, or on any size screen, the more I’m convinced that fundamentally, it’s much more about a story’s tone and personality than about externals like plot or accurate science or the fantastic.

By the way, I discovered Swann thanks to an earlier post about his talk on the ” 3 C’s of Worldbuilding.” He’s written a number of novels, but I went for this one first, because the title is irresistible. Even if you don’t know what the Cuyahoga is,  “The Dragons of the Cuyahoga” has a lovely rhythm to it. If you know, as I did, that the Cuyahoga is the river that runs through Cleveland, then the notion of dragons in Cleveland is just too good to pass up!


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