I'm currently behind on reviews, so don't be surprised if the recent reviews are a bit sparse.

The Sign of the Dragon

Cover of The Sign of the Dragon.

This is an epic poem – or rather, a collection of poems telling one epic story: The protagonist Xau is the king’s fourth son, and upon his death, is sent to the mountain to be presented to the king-choosing dragon, who has rejected (and killed) his older brothers first. He is the classical good/unassuming/stable-boy-type king, and is chosen because he doesn’t want the crown. He repeatedly wows people by bowing to them, in an inversion that goes from lame to funny to deep at least twice over the course of the book. He saves everybody. He is always fair and good, even when dealing with his enemies, and in dealing with each of his two wives and all of his children. All evil is naturally evil, all good good-if-misguided. Xau is capital-g Good.

I’m not sure what I think of the repetitions and the black-and-white storytelling – on the one hand, I can see how it’d be annoying, objectively, on the other hand, it’s all very in tone for this kind of work. In the end, I had too much fun to be overly critical.

The poems differ in perspective and style – the majority is narrative from an omniscient narrator, but some are from specific people – advisors, townsfolk, enemy soldiers, the cleaning woman he forms a friendship with, and best of all the palace cat (“Likewise, the palace is hers, / though she condescends / to share her territory / with the king.”, “Permissible that the king pauses, / pushes away paper and brush, / bends down to stroke / behind her ears. / Later, she will inspect his desk. / Items may need to be rearranged.”) –, or tales told after the fact, or rhyming poems for special circumstances (mostly evil. Evil rhymes.)

There is one poem that details how King Donal, not very scholarly, learns the language of Xau, and I just enjoyed it so much:

Donal, the Red King,
red-haired and red-handed in war,
battles behind him, restless in peace,
decided to learn Meqingese
in proof of friendship.

Cut his temper against erudite tutors:
raged, roared, railed,
without retaining the rudiments
of pitch and tone.
Regrouped. Reconsidered.
Rented a mixed-race whore.

Practiced basics in the bedroom:
between, beneath, belt, button,
strap, skirt, shirt, silk, satin,
open, closed, finger, thumb;
the rising, falling, dipping tones
of woman, man, mouth, lips, hips, ribs,
breast, buttock, belly, balls,
hot, heat, hand, hold, hard;
repetition and variation:
standing, lying, table, chair,
front, back, over, under,
in, in, in.

Then wine, honey cakes,
a master class of pillow talk.

Months later,
speaking Meqingese to Xau
for the first time,
Donal, flustered,
complimented Xau’s clothes,
his hair, the fineness of his eyes,
while Xau, perplexed,
inquired how heavily
Donal had been drinking.

Getting to know the other characters, especially the nine guards, over the course of the book was really well done, as were the two very different wives, the advisors, the other kings. There’s much more character in this than you’d expect knowing it’s a fairytale black-and-white epos. I liked it a lot.

Also, the author seems cool: Proceeds from 2020 (pandemic) sales were split between Doctors Without Borders, a local-to-her food bank, and the Trevor Project. The book is named after a book shop she loved as a child. She got a mathematics degree at Cambridge and her previous book, Elemental Haiku, contains one haiku for every element of the periodic table.

Plot summary

Beware: full spoilers! Also probably incomplete and possibly incomprehensible.

Chosen as king despite being the fourth son, after the king-choosing dragon has killed his brothers, Xau starts to train, his only real companions the other stable boy, Khyert, and his personal guards. He’s fair and starts tidying everything up. He marries Shazia to guarantee peace while war is looming, without ever having met her. Of course he is incredibly fair and offers an on-paper marriage, but she chooses to have children with him.

They visit the horse lords to prepare for war, and honours their customs, despite them being his subjects. Meanwhile Fian, the evil queen of the neighbouring country, gets her boisterous and strong husband, Donal the Red King, to declare war, because she has a special hatred for Xau and his country, being evil. Xau leads his army into battle and the horses magically do what he wants, even his enemy’s horses, and he’s victorious. Peace, but Donal is mad about it. Xau refuses to weaponise his gift for / relationship with horses.

Back home, Xau is clearly somewhat traumatised. Refuses triumphal arches etc. Has children. Spends time with his son as possible (rarely, but then fully). An earthquake: Xau comes with relief troops where it seems impossible, and when the leader of his personal guard is buried in rubble, he rescues him – but is hurt, and nearly loses his left hand (and does lose two fingers) to the infection.

Donal is ready to go to war, then it turns out a demon comes out every new moon and kills an entire city, in either kingdom. They band together. Xau’s dragon isn’t helpful. Xau, Donal and Khyert face the demon. The two others kneel, but Xau manages to resist and defeats the demon, but Khyert dies. Xau can recover people possessed / caught by the demon at huge personal cost, 20 nearly kill him, so of course he goes ahead and rescues 2000 afterwards (and has to basically start training from zero again afterwards).

Fian is unhappy, fails to poison Donal against Xau and resorts to luring him to their castle instead. Xau’s sister marries Donal’s slightly maniac brother Prince Connol for the good of the kingdom, because the alternative would be his execution. Never quite warmed up to him, but when he dies, she keeps their castle and settles in, finally. Tsung, head of the guard, dies defending Xau, but dies in peace. Xau visits Donal, rescues him when they are both caught in Fian’s attempt on his life, and they finally catch Fian red-handed (this is where Connol dies), and imprison her. She kills herself, unleashing a demonic force, which settles in the desert.

Atun, from the horse tribes, joins the personal guard despite there being no space for him. A flood disaster, the king again a relief force with his horses, nearly killing himself while helping, as he does. this time helping a neighbouring king. Xau also sends his son, Keng, to be trained by the dragon, so he is prepared for the potentially gruesome inheritance day. Meanwhile Shazia dies while giving birth – Xau decides that she should be saved, not the baby, but they both die regardless. He has a hard time dealing with the loss. Meanwhile, the evil thing in the desert, spreading by touch and delighting in torture, grows.

Xau falls in love with Hana, a woman from the horse tribes. She rejects him. When his first wife’s father hears about this, he considers this an insult (looking for reasons for war), and she decides to marry Xau just to spite that dick. She is not made for life at court. People try to set her against Xau’s daughter, but she’s really clever and good and straightforward about it (and also teaches her to fight with a bow). The bad king is challenged and defeated by his son, but out of bad reasons, so he is also bad. Xau returns the ashes of the three assassins that were sent against him, even though that journey is a trap, and rescues the newly-evil king’s brother from a wildfire while he’s at it.

Meanwhile, Hana has to get used to court, with compromises. New child. The dragon warns Xau of the new rising evil, and he takes her warning seriously and prepares for full-on war, and his allies with him, without any proof, for years: “And Donal the Red King / pledged then his sword, / his blood, his men / to the scarred king; / shadow and darkness behind them, / shadow and darkness ahead.” Keng grows into princeliness and understands how hard it all is. They figure out, when a spy is turned, that Xau is the only one who can resist the evil being’s touch in others, and can even free them (again, at huge personal cost). The evil imperium wins wars against five other kingdoms. Atun dies and Xau is really bad at dealing with it. Xau evens the war by more horse magic, then sets out towards the desert to take on the source of the evil itself.

The beast figures out how hard freeing people is on Xau and sends hostages out that Xau frees, children threatening to kill themselves. Freeing three almost kills Xau, the beast has another 14. It offers a deal: it will release a hostage for each hour it can torture Xau. Xau agrees and is tortured, kills the beast, then dies. Keng is crowned king. Is a good king, has kids of his own.


He was the wind,
the bow in his hand,
the galloping horse beneath him.
At the top of the horse’s rising run,
in that suspended instant
when all four hooves
left the ground,
he had no fear, no need;
he was the air-drawn line
between eye and target,
the string releasing,
the arrow in flight.


Good outcomes are not proof of good decisions.