Fire, by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson (Putnam, 2009, 297 pp, YA, but with a great middle-grade appropriate story) is the second volume of Tales of Elemental Spirits from these two very talented writers. The first, Water, first came out back in 2002; Fire took so long to finish because McKinley's stories kept getting away from her. Dragonhaven (2007), and Chalice (2008) both started life as Fire stories, but demanded their own books.
And of the five stories that are collected in Fire, the two that McKinley wrote ("Hellhound" and "First Flight" are much closer to novellas than to stories--you can almost feel the later, in particular, wanting to become a book). I am not complaining; too often short stories are too short, and leave me wanting more. But these two are just right. In "Hellhound," a girl's prosaic life as an assistant stable master and riding instructor becomes much more interesting when she adopts a strange (but sweet) dog with glowing red eyes...and finds herself having to confront a malevolent spirit that threatens to take her brother's life.
Her second contribution, "First Flight," is quite simply one of the best boy meets dragon (and grows up in the process) stories I've read in ages (this was the longest story in the book, at 116 pages). It's a gem of plot and character and world building, and would be a great story to give to a middle-grade fantasy loving kid, even though it's here in a "young adult" anthology. It tells of Ern, the runty third brother who's full of self-doubt--the oldest son is on his way to being a successful Dragon Rider, the middle brother is on his way to being a successful spiritseeker. All clumsy young Ern has done is to save the life of a creature who is the butt of jokes in song and story--a foogit pup named Sippy. But his life is about change when he (and Sippy) meet their first dragons...
Dickinson's contributions are equally gripping. He brings us a reimagined phoenix, tended by a gamekeeper in an English wood, a strangely horrible fireworm, terrorizing an ice-age people, and a great story about a boy possessed by salamanders.
In short, I liked the book lots and lots, and recommend it highly! But I'm not holding my breath for Air--McKinley is having her same troubles with runaway plots, and is in the throes of the second book in a series about pegasi (plural of pegasus) that began as a simple short story for that volume.
Other reviews/thoughts at Working Title, Kiss the Book, and Sonderbooks.