Rebecca Roland discusses some of the mechanics of the mainstay of fantasy aerial warfare: fighting from dragonback. From Pern to the invading Maddion of her own Shards of History series.
When I came up with the Maddion, I kept thinking of a militaristic society devoted to their dragons. As readers can see in Fractured Days, the Maddion live in mountains in an area that can only be reached by air. Dragons are crucial to their way of life for transportation, warfare, and hunting. They are as ingrained in the Maddion culture as horses are in many real-world cultures.
How does a person fight from dragonback?
First, a warrior would need a special saddle that would hold him firmly in place and be comfortable for rider/dragon at the same time. The last thing a person needs when he's hundreds of feet in the air doing complicated maneuvers is to fear falling. The saddle also has to be comfortable for the dragon (they have nasty ways of letting you know they disapprove), and it has to hold a warrior's weapons (the Maddion favor automatic crossbows and axes).
Second, the Maddion end up spread out when they're on dragons, even when flying in formation. They need a way to communicate so they can coordinate attacks, change plans, or glean information from scouts. I attended a Texas A&M bonfire/practice yell a few years ago when they came to play the UNM Lobos in football. It was an… enlightening experience, to say the least. But one of the things the Aggie yell-leaders do is make signals before a cheer to let the crowd know what's coming up. I thought something like that would work well for the Maddion, and so they use a variety of large arm and hand gestures to communicate, passing the message back from the group's leader to the very last man in the formation.
As for imagining the actual fight scenes, I admit that I borrowed an idea from George Lucas. As far as I know, World War II aerial dog fights inspired his own space-based fight scenes, and so I watched some footage to get an idea of what a large, human-guided, airborne creature could be capable of. I also utilized what I know of large birds of prey and how they maneuver while hunting. After I wrote the battle scene, I went back over it several times to make sure it was consistent and that the angles worked.
Other authors have tackled the logistics of humans fighting from dragonback. In Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, humans communicate with their dragons telepathically, and their queen is able to communicate with any dragon anywhere on the planet. This makes passing orders instantaneous and convenient.
Another series that utilizes fighting from dragonback is Naomi Novik's alternate history series beginning with His Majesty's Dragon. In this version of the Napoleonic Wars, the European forces have dragons. The dragons are large enough in some cases that they can support entire crews, complete with tents and supplies. For this, the dragons are outfitted with elaborate harnesses that the crew members attach themselves to using carabiners. Dragons are able to speak aloud, and are quite intelligent. They are so huge, however, that it's nearly impossible to speak from one beast to the other, especially when engaged in battle. So the aviators use flags as well as speaking trumpets to make their wishes understood. By the way, the battle scenes in this book are absolutely some of the coolest I've read in a while. And yes, I am an action junkie when it comes to both novels and movies.
It's fascinating to see how some of the same things crop up in stories about dragon riding, and yet there's room enough for plenty of originality as well. I can see how Novik's dragons and riders were influenced, in part, by McCaffrey's. Although it had been a while since I'd read McCaffrey, my own dragon riders were influenced by her as well, along with my long-standing interest in Genghis Khan.
Rebecca Roland is the author of the Shards of History series, The Necromancer's Inheritance series, and The King of Ash and Bones, and Other Stories. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Nature, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Stupefying Stories, Plasma Frequency, and Every Day Fiction, and she is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. You can find out more about her and her work at rebeccaroland.net, her blog Spice of Life, or follow her on Twitter @rebecca_roland. Read all the high flying details of the Maddion invasion by dragonback in her debut novel Shards of History, and its sequel Fractured Days.
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