Wrapping up my overview of the short stories and novelettes nominated for the Ignyte Awards (see also “The Archronology of Love” by Caroline M. Yoachim, “Emergency Skin” by N. K. Jemisin, “Omphalos” by Ted Chiang, “Circus Girl, The Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by Neon Yang, and the short stories), here’s a look at “While Dragons Claim the Sky” by Jen Brown…
Omani Sdyha is a practitioner of hair magic: “I’m the best coif mage you’ll find in Gyrisë”, she says. “I’ve mastered healing coiffery, and I even made up a new kind of magery when scalp divination and strand summoning didn’t suit me.” This new form of hair magic, she explains, “[m]olds your wildest wishes into the fabric of our world, so they might come to life.” She strives to study at the Imperial College of Allied Mages but, although her application has been accepted, she has nobody to cover the cost of a scholarship. And so, she makes a wish…
Her wish is seemingly granted when a young huntress named Myra arrives at her door asking for some quick hair magic. Myra is a finalist in the Dragonscale Melées, a tournament which – if she is triumphant – will make her an imperial knightess with plenty of money to spare. Despite scepticism and contempt from her mother – who wishes for her to stay behind and help tend to her sickly grandmother – Omani heads off with Myra on a quest which, if successful, will earn a scholarship for Omani, the title of knightess for Myra, and an end to a life of poverty for Omani’s family.
“While Dragons Claim the Sky” was published in an issue of Fiyah magazine themed around the symbolism of hair, hence the concept of hair magic. Outwardly whimsical, this aspect of the story leads to some engaging sequences in which magical workings are visualised as webbings and tendrils, a craft as physical and as aesthetic as hairdressing. But the hair magic forms just one part of the worldbuilding, which is satisfyingly thorough for a story of this length.
We learn that the land is periodically plagued by “wolf-wraiths”, beings apparently able to take on human form and invade homes: Myra’s sister has set off to confront the wolf-wraiths in battle. Dragons also exist, providing protection to village families, although they are not always reliable – as implied by a past event called the “dragon exodus”.
Embodying the familiar fantasy archetypes of magician and warrior, Omani and Myra have their differences, yet they also have much in common. They each have troubled families and high aspirations for the future, and they also share a destiny: in the climax of the story, Myra’s tournament takes place at the same time as Omani’s tense meeting with her professor-to-be, two very different conflicts playing out together.
Indeed, at this point conflicts large and small have begun criss-crossing as much as the strands used in Omani’s hair magic. The two protagonists have a partial falling-out; we learn of a past conflict involving the death of Omani’s father and the limits of her magic; and a violent altercation between prospective students reveals a dark side to Omani’s academic destination. The final conflict is political, as both Omani and Myra come to rebel against overarching injustice.
At first glance “While Dragons Claim the Sky” appears to be a textbook piece of genre fantasy with magicians, knights, dragons and so forth, albeit with the novel element of hair magic. But despite its familiar exterior, this is a story with vitality running through it – vitality stemming both from the characters and from the tactile presentation of their magic. The result is a story that is at once traditional and rebellious.