The Gentle Dragon PDF Print E-mail
Written by Fred Patten   

(reprinted from APA-L #2253, July 17, 2008) 


The Gentle Dragon, by Joseph K. Coates.
La Jolla, CA, Lane & Associates, May 1979,
329 pages, $4.95; ISBN: 0-89882-001-4.

This charming fantasy is set about the time of the spread of Buddhism.  A young dragon, Quick Fire, develops a thirst for human civilization.  He befriends a small Japanese village and becomes its protector against more predatory dragons.  The story develops episodically as the dragon and the villagers hesitantly come to know each other.  Quick Fire barely survives the attack of the vicious Lightning Flash.  He finds a mate and introduces her to human ways, and they and their children are eventually adopted as disciples of the Faultless Master to spread His teachings throughout the world.

 According to a biographical note, Joseph Coates is a retired naval commander who spent years living in Japan and researching its culture.  The Gentle Dragon is certainly the most authentically Oriental fantasy that I have read by an Occidental author, other than the works of Lafcadio Hearn.  The story contains an acknowledgment to Tolkien, and there is an impression that Coates has tried to write an adventure similar to The Hobbit, utilizing Oriental cultural roots as Tolkien utilized Anglo-Saxon and Nordic roots.

This is both the novel’s strength and its weakness.  Its success may make it too alien for some American readers.  The story is slowly developed and elaborately mannered.  Some of the dialog reads like Japanese translated too literally into English.  There are unfamiliar cultural nuances.  As a result, the writing may require a comprehension level more mature than is customary for this type of adventure.

 Speaking as a fantasy addict who is getting jaded with the unending stream of novels that are too faithful to Tolkien, I found The Gentle Dragon to be excitingly fresh.  The richness of the Oriental setting makes it a secondary universe unlike most, yet completely believable.  The unusual relationship between the dragons and the humans evolves both of them in intriguing ways.  The characters are likeable and the story is intelligently developed.  The Gentle Dragon is the type of book that may not be for all tastes, but those who like it will like it very much indeed.

Readers who do enjoy it enough to want other genuinely Oriental heroic fantasies might be steered to Wu Ch’eng-en’s The Pilgrimage to the West, also called Monkey or The Monkey King (apparently available currently only in Arthur Waley’s translation as Monkey, from Grove Press).

(Science Fiction Review #34, February 1980, page 45.)

2007 Note:  With the growth in popularity among Americans of anime and other aspects of Oriental culture, The Gentle Dragon is not as “different” as it was in 1980.  This ought to make it even more popular today, if it had not been published by a very small press and gone out of print almost immediately.

Last Updated ( Monday, 12 September 2011 )
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