Swallowtail and Sword, by H. Leighton Dickson – Book Review by Fred Patten
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
This is an interlude, because it comes after Book 3, Songs in the Year of the Cat, the last published, but before Book 4, Bones in the Year of the Dragon, which has not been published yet.
“Before there was a Shogun, before there was a Journey, there was a Story.
Not just one story, but many. Stories of myth and legend and Ancestors; of horses and lions and mountains and monkeys. Of life and death and those in between and how you can see them if only you try. If you sit quietly and listen deeply, you might hear something you’ve never heard before. You might know something you’ve never known and you might understand how we came to be the people we are. It is elusive, I grant you. Cats are, after all, an inscrutable people.” (p. 7)
So begins Swallowtail and Sword: The Scholar’s Book of Story and Song. With stories, but there are also songs. And steel. “Much steel, for cats are warriors and our armies are the envy of the world.” (p. 8) And tea. And much more. If you have read Books 1-3 of Tails of the Upper Kingdom (and if you haven’t, why haven’t you?), you will know of that far-future Oriental Empire, and of some of its politics and its expeditions to the far West and its discovery that humans still exist. And are preparing to reclaim the world.
But before that story is told, here are glimpses of the Empire and of some of the main characters of the series. This is a collection of stories, songs, and poetry, but it is also a continuation of what has gone before. Not a separate novel; just an interlude. It’s what the Scholar, Jeffrey Solomon, thinks about as he prepares to enter Cryosleep for five hundred years, assuming that there is still anyone left after five hundred years to revive him.
The Life and Death of Fireflies
The Breath of Butterflies
Song of Silver and Steel
The Alchemy of Shadow
Thunder and Avalanche
The School of One Hundred Thoughts
The Kiss of Shagar’mathah
The Year of the Dragon
Those are the stories. Forgive me if I don’t enumerate all of the poems. Eight separate stories, yet this book is not a collection of stories, nor yet a novel. As Swallowtail and Sword is a volume of glimpses of the Empire, here are glimpses of Swallowtail and Sword.
“It was uncommonly hot in this part of the Empire and he had to admit that somehow, at some time, he had grown soft. Life in Sha’Hadin was cold. For a thick-pelted cat, cold was a good thing but the heat in this little jungle town of Shathkira was possibly worse than Cal’Cathah, and Cal’Cathah was arguably the worst in all the Kingdom. Not that he would complain.” (p. 25)
“‘Who is our third, Esteemed Masters?’ Kirin asked.
‘Middle Captain Devraj Trevisan-White,’ said the Master of Recruits. He was a leopard of middling years, with a short black top-knot and dual swords. ‘From the garrison at Anna’purananna.’
‘That’s a dangerous trek,’ said Kirin.” (p. 91)
“His face was gone, charred from the firepowder; one eye milky, the pelt seared from his forehead, nose and cheeks. When he pulled back his lips, they cracked.
‘Die,’ he growled and his thumbs pressed deep into the hollows of her throat.” (p. 135)
“It was a bloody but fleeting image as Kirin drew his eyes back to the Avalanche, prancing in dizzying circles around them. They were a fearsome sight. Snorting, squealing, tossing their massive heads and for the first time Kirin saw horses in their natural state. Manes tangled and spilling down their shoulders, tails dragging along the ground. Hair like spikes on their jaws and like scales over their hooves, eyes wild like demons and mouths dripping foam. Their fangs were unfiled and protruded from their jaws like dragon teeth. Massive feet left ruts in the hard ground and still, the earth rumbled beneath them.” (pgs. 154-155)
‘You will start in first year with the rest of the students,’ said the Guru. ‘But you will be under my tutelage directly. Any tigress who can do those exams without prior schooling has a rather remarkable mind and should be mentored in how best to use it, rather than left to knock old men down steps and destroy government property.’” (p. 202)
“Once upon a time, there were no rivers and lakes on earth but only the Eastern Sea, in which lived dragons: the Long Dragon, the Golden Dragon, the Black Dragon and the Pearl Dragon.
One day the four dragons flew from the sea into the sky. They soared and dived, playing at hide-and-seek in the clouds.
‘Come over here quickly,’ the Pearl Dragon called to his fellows. His name was Zhēnzhū-long and he pointed to the ground far below.” (p. 245)
Eight stories, some poems, and don’t forget the tea. You are now ready for Bones in the Year of the Dragon. And while awaiting its publication, if you haven’t read Books 1-3 of Tails of the Upper Kingdom yet, hasten to get them.