Lucius Shepard,
Liar's House
(Subterranean Press, 2004)

Lucius Shepard has a thing for dragons, and in particular the dragon Griaule who makes his most recent appearance in the short novel Liar's House. What sets Griaule apart from the dragons of McCaffrey, Tolkien and other fantasists is that he's not the sort of creature that flies about breathing fire and wreaking havoc on the countryside. Griaule is ancient, paralyzed, comatose. "Struck immobile yet not lifeless by a wizard's spell" is how his condition is described in Shepard's first Griaule story, "The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter" (1988).

Griaule, more than a mile in total length, has lain in the western-most section of the Carbonales Valley for so long that the surrounding forest has overrun his tremendous bulk. His tail is covered in thickets, his back is topped with stunted trees and a town, Teocinte, has grown up in the shadow of his overgrown flank. Yet Griaule is not as powerless as he appears. His ways are, of necessity, considerably more subtle than is the case for most dragons, however. While Griaule may no longer have the ability to move in the physical sense, his ability to move others to his will is as formidable as his girth.

The title Liar's House refers to the inn located in the town of Teocinte. Properly known as Dragonwood House, the inn's owner claims he built the establishment entirely from trees cut from the forest growing on Griaule's dormant body. Among the residents of Liar's House is one Hota Kotieb, "a brooding stump of a man with graying, unkempt hair, his cheeks and jaw scarred by knife cuts." And while this is Hota's story it's also the tale of a second dragon, Magali, who Griaule lures to Teocinte for the sole purpose of providing him with an heir. Hota first spots Magali while he's out in the woods working on one of his inept carvings of Griaule. But while he scrambles through the undergrowth in an attempt to get a closer look at this magnificent creature she transforms into human shape, and it's in this guise that she coerces Hota to become part of Griaule's scheme.

Lucius Shepard is a poetic writer, one whose work is frequently a joy to read. Here he describes a storm that blows up while Hota is out gathering a particular herb that Magali has demanded be brought to her in preparation for her child's delivery: "An armada of clouds with dark bellies and silvered edges swept up from the south, grazing the sharp crests of the distant hills and thundering, as if their hulls were being ruptured."

At times though, Shepard's style feels overly embellished. Much of Liar's House takes place in Hota's head as he questions the extent to which his life, his every action, has been manipulated to serve Griaule's purposes. But Shepard's flowery prose struck me as out of sync with this man who, "had never attended school and was ignorant of many things." Metaphors such as the one that compares the approaching storm to ships in distress fit perfectly with this ex-dockworker's experience, but too much of the writing felt as though it were coming from a more worldly source. A simplified, cleaner style would have been truer to Hota's character and would have provided the added benefit of tightening up the story, which seemed stretched and a bit thin at 90 pages.

Liar's House reads a bit like the middle book of a trilogy, a story not so much compelling in its own right, but one that covers territory essential to getting the reader into position for the important events of the concluding chapter. Liar's House is a bridge that takes readers from the world of Griaule's subtle and devious manipulations to a world in which Griaule's son will hold sway. I'm sure Shepard has more dragon stories up his sleeve and that these will be more dynamic, though perhaps more traditional, than Liar's House. This time out, however, the story is rather less than readers will be used to from such a highly skilled and inventive writer. Liar's House is a good, but not great, piece of fiction that holds the promise of better things to come.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 30 July 2005

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