The Ice Dragon is one of Martin's fantastical short stories. As much as I love the Ice and Fire novels that are currently inescapable as the premier of the second season of HBO's Game of Thrones draws nearer, I think some of Martin's stronger work is in his short fiction. There are lots of collections of his short fiction but the real fan will want to read the career spanning behemoth Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective, which collects the highlight of more than three decades of Martin's writing and weighs in at some 1200 pages. It also contains the original version of The Ice Dragon, which was first published in 1980 in Dragons of the Light, an anthology edited by Orson Scott Card.
This original version is a story for adults but told from a child's perspective. Over the years people have told Martin it would make a fine children's tale with a bit of minor editing and in 2006, Starscape published this volume. I don't have my copy of Dreamsongs on hand right now, but from memory I would say the editing is light indeed. I do recall one scene towards the end of the story where the horrors of war are described in a way not suitable for a children's book, but other than that, I think it is mostly the same story. Starscape did add lots of interior illustrations by British illustrator Yvonne Gilbert, who also created the cover for the book. Despite the relatively minor changes, the combination of the editing and the illustrations do change the story into a children's tale, even if Martin's dark narrative voice is still clearly present. Many people have questioned the wisdom of Martin to do that many side projects but personally I think some very interesting stuff comes out of it.
In one of the harshest winters in living memory, Adara is born to a family of farmers. Her mother does not survive the birth and Adara herself comes into the world blue with the intense cold. The cold seems to have marked her and it is said Adara is winter's child. She loves it when the increasingly long winters bring cold, snow and ice but she does not really understand the meaning of her nickname until she meets the Ice Dragon.
Many people seem to believe this story is set in the same world as A Song of Ice and Fire. To my knowledge, Martin never stated it was and he wrote the original version more than a decade before he started work on A Game of Thrones. There are some superficial similarities, the pre-gunpowder civilization and the presence of dragons in particular, but other than that, there is very little that can be linked to that world. It hasn't stopped the Dutch publisher to proclaim it a story set in that world. I suppose if you insist it can be made to fit, but I prefer to see it as a work that stands on it's own.
That is not to say ice and fire are not very much part of the story. Martin explores the associations people have with these words on the emotional level. Adara appears cold and distant, it makes her a bit of a loner. A child even her own father can't get close to, or really love for that matter. The dilemma Adara's father faces is probably one of the elements the more mature reader will appreciate in this story. Appearances can be deceiving however, Adara is not without love or joy. She just expresses them in places where there is nobody around to witness them. Martin plays with these perceptions of warm an cold personality traits. It makes Adara appear a strange little girl sometimes, a girl some readers might not like a whole lot. Likeable or not, it's an interesting choice of themes though. Adara is more misunderstood than cold when you get right down to it.
We see the entire story through the eyes of Adara, who is four to seven years old in the main part of the story. Her view of the world is fairly limited, but though the conversations of her father and uncle, the reader gets some idea of what is going on in her world. Adara doesn't always understand what she hears but the more mature reader will. It creates a mix of the fairytale world Adara lives in and the bleaker world adults live in. Like many of Martin's short stories, The Ice Dragon is a tragedy. The ending of the story is bittersweet and in line with what one would expect of a fairytale but when you get right down to it, it still contains traces of the adult version.
Martin is not a writer to shy away from war or violence and they do appear in this story. Where the war is far away and something abstract to Adara early in the story, it comes very close towards the end. Although the dragon distracts from it a little, in essence it is a pretty dark story. Personally, I don't think you need to avoid death in children's books. One of the finest examples I've come across, although of a very different nature is The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. It can be done, and while Martin certainly is no Lindgren, I don't think his choice of themes is unsuitable.
I think I am going to have to reread the original version to work out which of the two I like better. Martin reworked into an interesting children's tale however. A story that I think shows some of this strengths as a writer. It is a story that takes readers of any age seriously and that hides a lot of complexity under Adara's limited view of events. Given the different ways in which adults and children can enjoy this story, it strikes me as a book that is very suitable to be read together. I think I wouldn't have minded having this one read to me as a child. Martin is a very versatile writer, the way this story has been adapted reveals another aspect of his skill.
Title: The Ice Dragon
Author: George R.R. Martin
Illustrations: Yvonne Gilbert
Publisher: Starscape Books
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 2006