Drag-on breath 

Dragons should be fearsome, mysterious and majestic monsters, so why does their presence so often drag on fantasy fiction like a bad case of morning breath? The new anthology Legends II: New Short Novels by the Masters of Modern Fantasy affirms the timeless paradox of the genre: that the less writers rely on "magickal" content, the more satisfying the results.

Legends gathers 11 of fantasy fiction's most acclaimed writers, who offer prequels, sequels or sidebars to their most famous series. Some entries keep the uninitiated at arm's length, like Anne McCaffrey's "Beyond Between," set on her dragon-swarmed planet of Pern. The telepathic, time-warping plot can leave first-time visitors to Pern befuddled, and it doesn't help that McCaffrey enthuses over the scaly steeds like she's dictating the illustrations for a New Age calendar.

The volume begins with "Homecoming," Robin Hobb's terrific prequel to her "Liveship Traders" trilogy -- a series that grows less compelling the more dragons barge into it. Fortunately, "Homecoming" only hints at fiery reptiles in its tale of ill-fated colonists trying to found a home along an acidic river. The novella's narrator -- an aristocratic artist who loses every vestige of privilege, yet finds the resources to build a new community -- proves the richest personality in Legends II.

Diana Gabaldon sets her "Lord John and the Succubus" not in some timeless kingdom but in a small Prussian town in 1757. In a footnote to the Seven Years War, an English officer -- and closeted homosexual -- investigates supernatural hysteria amid foreign troops and local civilians.

Legends II features some memorable flights of fancy, but the stories with staying power rely on sharp conflicts, colorful characters and the other virtues of good fiction. The realistic qualities turn out to be the most fantastic.Anne McCaffrey and her son/alter-author Todd McCaffrey appear at Dragon*Con, the sci-fi, fantasy, comics, gaming convention, Sept. 3-6 at Atlanta Marriott Marquis, 265 Peachtree Center Ave. $25-$85. 770-909-0115. www.dragoncon.com. Legends II: New Short Novels by the Masters of Modern Fantasy, Robert Silverberg (editor). Ballantine Books. $28.95. 642 pages.

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