Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Minikins of Yam by Thomas Burnett Swann.
This fantasy set in antiquity is of a piece with other work by Thomas Burnett Swann. In this case, the setting is the Old Kingdom of Egypt and its neighboring African realm of Yam. The narrative is grounded in the ancient “Autobiography of Harkhuf” from the reign of Pepi II, and both Harkhuf and the pharaoh figure as central characters here. The chief minikin character Immortelle is not one of the Brown Minikins of Yam, she is rather a Golden Minikin in Yam, visiting there from distant Sappharine. Consistent with Swann’s recurring patterns of story and character, Immortelle is a whore of many virtues.
The minikins of the story are fabulous demi-humans with a portion of gazelle ancestry. Diminutive, horned, and four-fingered, they are more novel than the harpies, minotaurs, dryads, and other classical creatures that Swann often presents, but not quite so exotic as the strange people at the hub of his book Moondust. In addition to the “demons” and other intelligent non-humans of the tale, The Minikins of Yam features some supernatural magic, chiefly in the posthumous persistence of two key characters, Harkhuf’s wife Ti and Immortelle’s partner Tutu.
Typically for Swann, the story includes a number of embedded poems, and proceeds by means of fast-paced narrative and droll dialogue. The DAW edition that I read features a fine cover and interior art by George Barr, who provided the same service for other books by the author.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Moondust by Thomas Burnett Swann.
In Moondust, Thomas Burnett Swann chose to slot a novel fantasy into the biblical context of the sheltering of Joshua’s spies and the fall of Jericho (Joshua, chapters 2 and 6). It features a cryptid race, telepathic enslavement, an underground kingdom, and other standard tropes of the Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure yarn. “Moondust” is the true name of the harlot Rahab among her people, who are neither Hebrews nor Jerichites.
This is the second book I have read by Swann. The other was the later Cry Silver Bells, which had many points of similarity with Moondust in addition to being set in antiquity with fantastic creatures. Both books have an orphaned teen human protagonist, and a non-human female protagonist who is the love interest of the former. Each young man has an older sister who is a whore. In Moondust, a changeling/adoption scenario allows the sister-prostitute and the nymph to be collapsed into a single character, while the somewhat more sophisticated Cry Silver Bells distinguishes the two.
I gather that Swann’s work is now pretty thoroughly out of print, but I enjoyed this strange little book, and I expect to read him opportunistically in the future.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Cry Silver Bells by Thomas Burnett Swann.
I don’t know how I managed to miss the work of Thomas Burnett Swann for all these decades. Cry Silver Bells is the first novel of his I’ve read, and I liked it very much. It is set in ancient Crete, with the matter-of-fact inclusion of various Beasts (Swann’s capital) of ancient myth and fable, such as Harpies, Centaurs, Tritons, and Sphinxes. The title character is a Minotaur. Narration duties alternate between a young Egyptian exile (of Achaean descent) and a Dryad, but the book as a whole is really the Dryad’s story, with the human narrator just supplying a more familiar viewpoint and priming the reader to sympathize with the Dryad Zoe.
George Barr provided the cover art and a small handful of interior illustrations for the DAW paperback, and they are all quite nice. I don’t think it was just Barr’s art, though, that made me think this book would make a wonderful animated feature, although not a Disnified juvenile one by any means. Swann is frank about the erotic motives and activities of his ancient characters. There is a significant plot twist, but enough foreshadowing that an attentive reader will be prepared for a less-than-happy ending.
Cry Silver Bells is a short book, with some interpolated poetry (sung by various characters). The prose style is direct and lucid. I wouldn’t call the book especially edifying, but it was a pleasure to read. I will certainly read more by this author, who died of cancer in his late 40s when I was under ten years old. Although Cry Silver Bells is part of a trilogy (the first of the three in narrative chronology, the last in publication order), I have already acquired a copy of the standalone novel Moondust.