Review: 'Songs in the Year of the Cat', by H. Leighton Dickson
This is Book 3 of the Tails from the Upper Kingdom; the direct sequel to To Journey in the Year of the Tiger and To Walk in the Way of Lions. In those two, Captain Kirin Wynegarde-Grey, a genetic lion-man (yes, he has a tail) and commander of the Empress’ personal guard in a far-future post-apocalypse dynastic China (with touches of feudal Japan) that has forgotten its past, leads an expedition consisting of his geomancer brother, his snow leopard-woman adjutant, a young tiger-woman scholar, a cheetah-woman alchemist, and a mongrel-man (mixed feline) priest into unknown western lands. They encounter canine nomads in what was Mongolia, and really exotic animal-peoples in what was Europe; and they learn the true history of the world and the apocalypse that destroyed it. The expedition is much smaller when the survivors return to the Empress’ court in the Upper Kingdom two years later, just as the Year of the Tiger has ended.
In the Oriental Zodiac, the Year of the Tiger is followed by the Year of the Rabbit – except in Vietnam, which recognizes the Year of the Cat. (True; look it up.) In this novel, the future Vietnam is called simply Nam, and there is no word for rabbit. (In the real world and the present, the Vietnamese word for rabbit is ‘tho’.)
And so, we begin our story with the birth of a baby, the weeping of a dog and a cup of hot sweet tea, naturally in the Year of the Cat. (p. 1)
What do you do after everything has been done? When Captain Kirin Wynegarde-Grey returns to the Empress’ court after two years, when it had been expected that he would be gone at most a few weeks, he finds that he is an embarrassment. A new Captain of the Empress’ personal guard has been appointed; the post could not be left vacant for so long. There is no place among the upper-class courtiers for a former favorite, especially one who has undergone so many hardships and tortures that he is no longer as pretty as a member of the Empress’ court is expected to be.
But Kirin had been the Empress’ lover, and is still her personal favorite. She does not want to dismiss him.
… She lifted the paper to the lantern light. ‘What do you know of the history of the sham’Rai, Kirin-san?
‘The sham’Rai.’ He began slowly. ‘The highest order of Shah’tyriah, warriors bound only to one master until death.’
‘We do not have this position in our court.’
‘No longer, no.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘In the days of the most Ancient of Ancestors,’ she blinked slowly. ‘The sham’Rai served the Empire with loyalty, fealty and honour. A sham’Rai served only one master and would do so until his death, or the death of his master. He would accrue no power for himself, no personal wealth or lands or titles. Service to his master was reward enough and he embraced the Way of the Warrior with his heart, mind, soul and strength.’
‘Bushido.’ He nodded.
‘This document is a return to the ways of the sham’Rai and the reinstitution of the Shogun amongst the Shah’tyriah caste. The sham’Rai are to be chosen by the Empress of the Upper Kingdom and accorded all respect and honour worthy of their calling.’
‘There will be resistance, Ex—‘ He caught himself. ‘Ling.’
She laid the paper down, folded her hands in her lap.
‘I am an Empress with an infant child and without a husband, with a fine Imperial Captain but a treacherous advisor. I am vulnerable and need the protection of a sham’Rai. My own Shogun-General.’
She raised her chin, a gesture of pride.
‘You, Kirin-san, have shown honour above and beyond that of a normal warrior. You have beating in you the heart of a sham’Rai and it is my wish that you take on the role of very first Shogun-General of the Empire.’ (p. 20)
Kirin becomes the Upper Kingdom’s Shogun-General just in time to meet his old companions returning, and to lead the Empress’ armies (leaving her, proud but alone, amidst her deadly enemies among her fawning courtiers) against a new menace, the kingdom’s greatest yet. The human Ancestors whom his previous expedition awakened are coming, with their weapons of Mass Destruction:
Now Kerris turned to his brother.
‘We need to be ready, Kirin, for when they come. And not just us. We won’t be enough to stop them. All our swords and bows, even our cannons won’t be enough to chase them off. They will want what we have and they will take it.’ He glanced at Fujihara, then back again. ‘No, the only thing that will stop them will be unity. All the Kingdoms presenting a united front against them.’ (p. 86)
All the Kingdoms. There has never been an alliance of all the Kingdoms before. Not only due to politics and national pride, but to basic instinct. It is impossible enough to imagine the Upper Kingdom and the Eastern Kingdom, all the lions and ocelots and servals and tigers and leopards and cheetahs and jaguars and lynx and sandcats, and even the armies of the Chi’Chen monkeys, presenting a united front. But the felines and their instinctual enemies, the canines of the Lower Kingdom?
Enemies within and without. All told in 312 pages of rich, colorful prose:
He had never seen her hair. No one had ever seen her hair. It was always covered by a headdress of some sort, usually gold, frequently with tassels. He had never imagined seeing it, had never allowed his mind to go there, but now, as she sat like a little sparrow in the cushions, her hair was loosed and fell like a curtain of black silk to her waist. It caught and reflected the lantern light, shone blue like a moonlit lake. (p. 18)
The Gate of Five Hands towered over the end of the road. It was a massive structure of at least four stories, with ebony pillars, winged rooftops and dancing cranes carved into its double doors. The doors swung open and three men stepped onto the road, two leopards and one old lion in Imperial gold. (p. 76)
It was a thing unseen in the history of Shen’foxhindi as almost three thousand horses and riders poured through the tower and out through the gates. In fact, it would take the better part of the day for the last horses to leave the stone of the Wall for the earth of the town and more than one soldier dropped to sleep at the feet of his horse once there. Blankets were brought for both horse and rider and homes were opened to all. For once, sakeh flowed freely amongst the troops, as cat, horse and monkey would rest for three days to prepare for the journey to come. (p. 128)
Ten thousand enemies were coming from the north. A world of enemies were waking in the west. There were only nine of them here, ten including the Chi’Chien ambassador and he could not see the end of it. Eye of the Needle, Eye of the Storm. Death and fire, bones and eyes.
And that would only be the beginning. (p. 137)
‘Everything, every living thing in this world will try to kill you, Jeffery 7. We are no longer the dominant species on this planet. The contagions that have developed can turn a normal man or woman into a cannibalistic monster within weeks. You do not go outside without a C-FAS and even then, you do not go beyond the fence. It’s madness.’ (p. 185)
Bravery and betrayal. Death and rebirth. 312 pages that sing.
Is the story over? No. It will be continued in Bones in the Year of the Dragon. Heather Dickson says on her website that this is the third novel in a six-volume (at least) series; that the cover illustrates Sherah al Shiva, her cheetah femme fatale Alchemist who is the mother of Kirin’s infant son (a big surprise to him), and that she is modeled upon Angelina Jolie. Who did the cover is vaguer; Dickson talks of designers and artists as though they are different people, herself and graphic artist Graeme Dickson (a brother?), and previously artist John Connell. Read Songs in the Year of the Cat, and be prepared for more adventures.