Nostalgia trip! Christopher Rowley’s A Sword for a Dragon
David G. Hartwell once said “The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve.”
Without going into the full essay, it still makes sense. Twelve is about the age a precocious young reader will start to devour as many book as humanly possible, drawn from whatever resources are available: local libraries, whatever books your parents have laying around, whatever else you can scrounge up at a yard sale or off the grocery store book racks, etc. It’s a wonderful time, in which the young reader has ample time to read as much as possible, and with a mind open enough to take in whatever ideas that a particular work might have to offer, without a jaded perspective that might arise later.
To put it a little less optimistically, young nerds will read anything, because they just don’t know better. I sure as hell did.
And to be honest, I really can’t remember too much of what I read way back when- one of my uncles provided me with a steady stream of Star Wars sequel novels (most of which were terrible), and I voraciously hoovered up whatever battered sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks the local library had.
Amongst these books? I remember reading at least one or two of Christopher Rowley’s “Bazil Broketail” series. Fast forward about twenty years, and I stumbled across some battered paperbacks in a funky-smelling used bookstore, and that’s the sort of thing blog posts are made of!
I honestly can’t recall if I read A Sword for a Dragon when I was a kid or not. It’s one of those funny things where I remember the series, but most of the crunchy details were lost to time. Still, I at least remembered the premise of the books- Bazil Broketail, the titular hero of the books, is a dragon.
More specifically, Bazil is a dragon in the service of Fantasyland’s army. Having a big-ass dragon is a pretty convenient thing, fighting wise, as one could imagine. Of course, big-ass dragons are pretty high maintenance, and so each dragon-knight has a “Dragonboy,”- a squire, essentially, to tend to their armor and patch their wounds and stuff. Also, there’s a big evil empire of demonic bad guys who worship a giant snake-god and steal human women to breed orcs- er, I mean, ‘Imps.’ Because these random horrible cannon-fodder monsters are TOTALLY DIFFERENT (because of the rapey subtext, I guess).
So yeah. That’s about all I could remember, going in. A Sword For a Dragon is the second in the series, so I was able to fill in various details as they went on. For example, Bazil’s Dragonboy is a kid named Relkin, who…is pretty much your standard sixteen year old Fantasy Orphan Protagonist. He’s young and scrappy and honestly kind of an idiot. At least he’s responsible enough to tend to his Dragon buddy Bazil. Honestly, I kind of wonder if the book might be marketed as YA today, due to Relkin’s young age. Then again, there’s not really much in the way of romantic triangles, either, so maybe it doesn’t qualify.
Aaaanyway. Relkin and Bazil are part of the 109th Dragons (more on that later)- and their unit gets assigned to a legion that heads down to some far off land, in order to save said land from the evil hordes of Not-Mordor, who are invading because they are jerks with nothing better to do. Adventures ensue. Battles are fought, damsels are rescued (repeatedly- seriously, there’s a lady who pretty much exists in this story mostly to be captured over and over), and monsters are slain.
The setting is honestly schizophrenic- Relkin and Bazil’s homeland/army is vaguely based on the Roman legions- fair enough. Except when they take a trip downriver, the next ‘realm’ over is full of Brave Warrior Dudes(tm) who wear loincloths, paddle canoes, and carry tomahawks. This might have gone unnoticed, if it weren’t for the fact that, once you get through Not-American-Indian-Land, it Bazil & Co. wind up in a weird Middle-Eastern/Indian pastiche. They cover up their women in burquas, own slaves…and they also worship some kind of multi-armed death-goddess who demands human sacrifice. This ultimately felt kind of lazy to me. I got the impression that Rowley wasn’t creating kingdoms from whole cloth; instead, he just kind of cribs and cobbles together “stuff that those exotic brown people did,” and went on with it. Nevermind the logic of how a “primitive tribe” of Not-Iroquois would remain so while sitting on a trade route directly between two major nations.
It’s little things like this that made me come to a realization early on: A Sword for a Dragon, is ridiculously colonialist. It’s the sort of (likely unintentional) subtext that entirely went over my head as a kid, and the sort of thing that makes me kind of glad I read the book again, even if it might not have been very good.
As a sidenote, this book- or at least the edition I picked up, needed a better editor. Bazil is referred to as “Brazil” at least once, and there’s a bit towards the end of the book where the dragons are referred to as “great breasts,” and I’m pretty sure Rowley didn’t want to go in that direction. I sure as hell don’t, which is why I’m not going to google ‘dragon breasts’ anytime soon. Still, I bet there’s an audience for it.
If the “109th Dragons” thing didn’t tip you off, there’s more than a little of the British Empire in this book- not just in the organization of the protagonist’s army, but also in their attitude. See, Relkin and Bazil’s regiment gets sent down south to Not-India, in order to prop up its ruler and defend it from the Evil Dark Lord Guy’s Evil Hordes(tm). There’s a big battle early on, in which the vaguely Roman-styled Good-Guy-Legion (with Dragons) manages to beat a far more numerous bad guy army- while their Not-Indian allies break and run.
It doesn’t get much better; there are few Not-Indian characters who are actually named, and fewer still that are sympathetic. The only two who get much in the way of screen time are the Emperor, a bawling, useless, cowardly man who’s always whining about how he wants to go back to his harem rather than ruling his kingdom, and an exotic beauty who Relkin rescues from a slave-brothel, and then disappears from the book after she sleeps with him (taking his virginity, which he’d been kind of obsessing over since the beginning of the book). Yeeeah.
Anyway, the Fantasyland Dragon Legion marches down to Not-India’s capital city, and brace for a siege. I’m a sucker for a good siege (which is why The Two Towers was my favorite Lord of the Rings movie), and actual battle sequences were pulpy and entertaining enough. They did tend to strain credulity at times- for example, the bad guys dig a tunnel in an effort to breach the city walls, which is about standard siege procedure…only the good guys’ counter-tunnel has enough room for a hundred men and couple of two-ton dragons to burst in. Seriously, they’re digging subways here.
During the siege, the Not-Indians are portrayed universally terribly. Hell, one of the Dragonboys even says: “Sir, we hate the damned eunuchs here. Fact is, we pretty much hate all the people in this city.” (Page 436). The emperor wants to surrender. The emperor’s neice tries to sacrifice Relkin (and Bazil, and the assistant to a witch-lady who is basically Merlin) to Not-Kali, because nobody will notice that, and the common people are constantly cheating or stealing from the Brave Imperial Legions. There’s a brief mention of actual brave and competent ‘native’ soldiers near the beginning of the book, but Rowley forgets about them before too long, and they’re not mentioned again.
Kind of convenient that Rowley forgets about the native troops, too, as I kind of doubt they would put up with the shit that the Good Guy Legion gets up to. The Merlin-Witch-Lady basically takes over the government with mind control magic, the Legion marches in and sets up shop in the city- they eventually take over the city’s granary to ensure they’re supplied, and when supplies start getting low, they cut off all food to the civilians. Because that’s going to go over so well.
There’s a definite undercurrent of “it’s for your own good” in all of these actions, as the Legions are there to defend Not-India from the slavering bad guy hordes. Thing is, the Legions fuck that up, too- over the course of the battle, they’re overwhelmed, and so they fall back to the Emperor’s Palace to make their stand. This leaves the thousands of civilians trapped outside the palace to be captured by the bad guys, where they’re marched off to be sacrificed to the evil snake god. Good job, heroes.
A military debacle is actually a ripe setting for a novel- good stories are built on conflict, after all. One need only look at, say, a Flashman novel that makes use of such a scenario to good effect, showing the horror and senselessness of war. Unfortunately, Rowley doesn’t take this route. The story’s just presented as a straightforward adventure narrative; all the good guys are good, and the bad guys are really bad…as well as being blusteringly incompetent. A Sword for a Dragon makes a Honor Harrington novel look like a nuanced HBO drama.
This doesn’t just apply to the faceless bad guy hordes, either- there’s a cringing, cowardly officer of the Legion who spends the whole book trying to desert in order to save his own skin, to the point where he opens up secret negotiations with the Snake-God-Hordes, because those guys are going to be reasonable. Of course, Captain Coward’s scheming goes nowhere- he manages to hijack a ship to escape towards the end of the novel, but the ship runs aground and is recaptured by Relkin & Bazil a chapter or two later.
So the book ends with a sneaky rescue mission, and a big boss fight against the Evil-Snake-God. Bazil kills it with the fancy new sword he got at the beginning of the book (hence the title), and…that’s about it. There’s little in the way of denouement. Kind of video gamey, now that I think of it- or maybe that’s when the D&D session wrapped up.
All and all, I’m kind of glad I went back and read Rowley. This isn’t to say A Sword for a Dragon is a particularly good book- rather, I got most of my enjoyment in analyzing the unintentional subtext that I completely missed the first time around. On the one hand, it’s a little unfair to get too critical of a silly adventure novel with a dragon on the cover. On the other, by painting everything in black and white, and by resorting to various stereotypes to populate the novel, Rowley’s writing just comes off as lazy and uninspired. There’s apparently like seven books in the Bazil Broketail series- I never made it past three or four, and now I know why. Maybe even back then, I realized the books were a bit crap, without even really being aware of it.