You may have seen some authors dubbed “one trick ponies” for the fact that most of their works are simply recolors of one central story. Seven Little Sons of the Dragon definitively proves that Ryōko Kui is not among that number. This short story collection from the creator of Delicious in Dungeon showcases an impressive variety of tales, and if each does take “fantasy” as its genre, no two really use that genre in the same way. Not even the dragons that appear in two separate stories (“The Dragon Turret” and “’My Child is Precious,’ Cries the Dragon”) are similar – the former features a distinctly griffon-like beast while the latter is a more classic Chinese dragon in appearance. While love and loss also make repeated thematic appearances, again, they are used in different enough ways to make each separate story feel completely unique, giving this collection more the feel of a multi-author anthology than a short story collection by a single creator.
Of the stories, the most traditional in a storytelling sense is the first, “The Dragon Turret.” The story takes place in a Medieval world with a vaguely Middle Eastern feel (landscape-wise, at least) where two countries are preparing to go to war – again. One has complete control over the coast, while the other is more agricultural, so rather than trade, both would prefer to simply control the other’s territory. The only thing holding them back from full-out warfare is the fact that a bell tower sits between the two lands and a dragon has made her nest in it. Since dragons are only a problem for humans when they have chicks, this means that the war will just have to wait until they’ve fledged. This frustrates both sides, but it also halts any trade that may have been allowed to happen, meaning that both sides are suffering from various shortages. Into this situation comes a trader who has figured out how to not rile the mother dragon, and he and a young woman from the agricultural community form a bond. While this could easily have been played straight into a “star-crossed lovers” scenario, it more interestingly turns into a study of prejudices and the fact that people are in fact people, no matter where they live. The dragon doesn’t directly facilitate this, but her mere presence and residence in the bell tower force the people to actually stop and think about what they’re doing for once. It’s the forced halt to the aggressions that allows the couple to realize that the war really doesn’t need to happen, and while the ending is a bit quick, its message is a very nice one and quite well done.
In almost direct opposition to this heartwarming tale are both the other dragon story and “Byakuroku the Penniless,” both of which have a distinctly bittersweet quality. Both also turn out to deal in themes of parental love, but in ways that don’t always make it perfectly clear, or rather, presenting the complex nature of that particular love. “Byakuroku the Penniless” is perhaps the more interesting of the two in the way that it uses the theme; the story follows an elderly painter who is so gifted that any picture he completes will literally come to life. To that end, he never finishes both eyes so that his work stays firmly on the paper where it belongs. Now, however, he has run out of money, and so he decides that perhaps he’ll begin bringing paintings to life in order to deprive people of his works so that they’ll have to buy new ones. His companion on his quest is a poor counterfeit of his work, brought to life with his own pen. The counterfeit, all too aware that he’s not the real deal, helps the old man to understand his complicated relationship with his art and his son both, and in some ways the story is vaguely reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen‘s The Steadfast Tin Soldier, albeit much less disturbing. It differs from the second dragon story largely in that is equal parts bitter and sweet; the second piece is mostly bitter with just a drop of redeeming sweetness to it as two people from different social classes come to recognize that their emotions are what makes them human – but instead of bringing them together, those feelings form the wedge that drives them apart. It’s almost the direct inversion of the first dragon piece, and while it isn’t ever explicitly stated, there’s a sense that Kui may be using dragons as the bridge between humans and animals in that they allow for the qualities of both.
That’s a theme more explicitly explored in “The Mermaid Refuge,” which follows a boy who finds a mermaid (who is regarded as something like a seal or a dolphin) repeatedly trying to cross the road. He believes that she’s more than just a smart animal, and despite the jeers from his peers, he attempts to do something about it. Likewise “My God” has its child protagonist taking in a tochigami, or land god, when his sacred river is filled by humans for development; she hopes he’ll be able to help her with her entrance exams, but learns that gods, like humans, don’t always do what we want them to. “Wolves Don’t Lie,” which features a disease that causes werewolfism, is the middle ground between the other two, while once again exploring the bonds between parents and children, this time in a more equal way than the previously mentioned tales. This is also the most artistically different piece, as Kui varies her style in order to feature the wolfboy’s mother’s “confessional” style manga about raising him.
Whether it’s a sendup of great detectives in fiction (“The Inutanis”), a love story, or an exploration of human nature, all of the stories in Seven Little Sons of the Dragon are uniquely told. They may share a few thematic elements and a genre, but none are retreads and all feel satisfying when you’ve finished. There aren’t many short story collections you can say that about. That makes this one of the good ones.