The Sign of the Dragon is a rarity. It’s hard to describe what makes it so great, so I will start with just describing what makes it unique: firstly, its structure (an epic fantasy novel written via 300-something poems) and secondly, its content (a story of a mythic figure, yet extremely personal).
I’ve never heard of a book of speculative poetry with this kind of ambition before. You’d think it would get old after the first hundred or so, but it only becomes more enchanting, immersing you like some epic poem of old. I found myself captivated by the rhythm of it all, the beauty of the words, the magic of its verses. Definitely worked very well for me.
But my favorite part was undoubtedly its story. The tale of King Xau is an inspiring one—in a conversation with Mary Soon Lee, she said people told her everyone is too kind in this book, and this is a sensible statement: nearly every poem, every moment, every fragment of this is saturated with kindness.
King Xau himself is the biggest reason for this: he exudes kindliness with every waking breath! It’s a contagious kind of thing, elevating him very quickly to a legendary status, with many tiny examples of his warmth and gentleness. Yet it never feels naïve—he suffers consequences, the good moments feel well-earned, he becomes this strange mix of a very human person yet a figure of myth.
There are some other hints throughout this story of this being a somewhat mythic tale—we are sometimes unsure whether everything truly happened as it is depicted, or whether this is some cultures version of e.g. the Odyssey. At other moments it clearly “breaks the fourth wall”, mentioning stuff which happens but will not be remembered by the historians.
It’s a very interesting narrative device. I don’t think this story would work as a novel. Neither do I think this will at all appeal to those who cherish grimdark (though it certainly gets dark at times), people who believe all people are fundamentally evil, that lord-of-the-flies crowd.
But if you are one of those Becky Chambers-loving, hopeful people who look for the positive in humanity, if you are someone who wants to read something truly experimental, a kind of multicultural hopepunk story with Guy Gavriel Kay-level emotions… You will love this book as I did. You will cherish the characters, the words and the lyricism.
Highly recommend. One of my favorites of the year. I hope to reread this next year—slowly, perhaps a poem a day, daily invigoration.