A quick forward before I begin: this book is exactly what I look for when I want to read sci-fi. A creative setting, characters, and it’s from an older obscure author. Who’s a woman, to boot! Therefore this review is definitely biased because I’m the target audience.
A Judgment of Dragons is a set of four novellas that form a single novel. Despite being novellas you shouldn’t start anywhere – they reference previous novellas and are meant to be read in chronological order.
They’re about a pair of giant red leopard-like cats who come from a far-flung planet. They’ve been granted spaceflight by the Galactic Federation and welcomed as a member race – not just because they’re sentient, but because so many of them are psychics. This book chronicles the journey of Khreng and Prandra, a married couple who travel to Earth in order to finalize the details of their membership in the GalFed – one of the biggest benefits to joining the GalFed is that they’re offering food supplies to their planet. As, you see, the cats have overhunted their planet to the point where these poor cats have to fish in order to have anything to eat.
That’s the framework for most of the novel – here are capsule summaries of the four novellas.
Son of the Morning: Prandra and Khreng approach Earth, and accidentally fall into a time vortex, landing in 19th century Poland. They have to solve a mystery in order to return, and this is where I first fell in love with the book, as the author’s love of humanity shone through – the Jewish village is depicted remarkably well and her understanding of human insight, as filtered through these cats… gosh.
The King’s Dogs: Now back in their era, they land on Earth and finalize the deal with the GalFed. Then someone is murdered. This is the purest murder mystery in the novels, and it introduces Kinnear as a recurring character – he’s a detective who initially isn’t sure if the cats murdered someone or not.
Nebuchadnezzar: On their way back to their home planet, the cats stop to help out a friend alien with a smuggling ring. This novella has a more Mission Impossible kind of vibe, and is perhaps the darkest of the set – but in a good way.
A Judgment of Dragons: The titular story, and what a story! The cats are home and working to set up the food situation, as well as resolving tribal differences and familial issues when, well – dragons. Judgment. You’ll see: it’s beautiful.
The writing is fantastic, and it occasionally turns into poetry for some of the more alien moments, which is a really cool effect – and not one you see in modern works as much! I found myself blazing through a story at a time, lying around to digest and savor what I’d just read, then repeating.
I loved the dynamic of the main couple – they’ve had children, they miss them but this mission is important, and they’re just… they’re cats! They’re strange and quixotic but also really good at untangling strange situations. I got really attached to Prandra especially, as she got closer to some of the villains in profound ways and seeing her mate support her was just…
I got invested in this book, can you tell? Wildly creative sci-fi that also pulls at the heart-strings is everything I want out of life, and then these cats are cats and you can’t forget it. Phyllis Gotlieb got the psychology dead on here so you don’t think they’re humans wearing fur. It’s brilliant. Please read it!
There are sequels and I’ll read and review them when they arrive. Which should be soon!