[Crowned: The Sign of the Dragon: Book One - Amazon link
I first encountered Mary Soon Lee's King Xau poems while working as one of the poetry editors of Strange Horizons
, where I had the I'm sure frustrating tendency to reject them at the very last minute with long notes about how much I like them. The problem (if you can call it a problem) is that although most individual poems are pretty good, it's the aggregation that makes them something special. This anthology contains the chronologically first 60 or 70 poems in a linked cycle of hundreds set in a secondary world which reminds me of Avatar and the Dothraki. I don't know anybody else who's doing that.
Lee says in her author's note that she's "been warned repeatedly that Xau is too perfect." It's a fair cop, although I'd say instead that the most forgettable poems are the ones that try to demonstrate how good a king he is by having him do something polite by modern standards and having everyone else be amazed. The more interesting - and more poetic - sections are the descriptions of the world's small details, such as "Wedding Gifts," a sly list of both practical and showy presents that accompany a treaty-securing wedding. It's a surprisingly poignant illustration of the anxiety and relief of a ceremony with an uncertain outcome.
The most outstanding standalone poem is "Interregnum," about young Xau's ascent to the throne after a mountaintop encounter with a fire elemental dragon, originally published in Star*Line
. Appropriately, this won the 2014 Rhysling Award. Moments of magic are rare in this book, which makes them thrilling. It's a nice device that horses are loyal to Xau, but not in his direct control; it gives him supernatural power without the classic "well then why can't he use that every time to win every time."
In the early going, which these poems are, battle descriptions are perfunctory, and Xau's military opponent Donal is dull and distractingly of-this-world; it's like watching Mulan go up against somebody pledging a frat who says "fucking" a lot when he's had too many beers. I can say, having read poems from later in the cycle (not yet anthologized) that Lee gets better at this, to the point where eventually her battle (and post battle) scenes are a real pleasure. For now, in book one, they're more prosaic, the work of an author who knows characters have to get from a to b.
The first glimmer of what will eventually become a strength appears late in this book, in a handful of lines in the poem "Help," where Lee describes the horror of someone who sent out a message as quickly as possible after a disaster, only to realize afterward that it would be impossible to send any further messages. Lee doesn't overplay this moment, and it's gutwrenchingly relatable: the agony of having kept a cool head and done exactly the right thing, only to find out that all the rules have changed and you've possibly doomed yourself.
In any case, I recommend the book, although I think only 100 copies were printed and it is likely hard to find. And I recommend continuing to keep an eye out for future anthologies. In the meantime, join the hunt for new poems as they show up in Star*Line, Ideomancer, Dreams and Nightmares
, and elsewhere, as a thread that has already brought together a dozen diverse SF magazines as participants in a single epic.