Rouse a Sleeping Cat by Dan Crawford
Ace, 1st printing, 1993
Synopsis & Review: Exiled from her native Reangle, the one-time Baroness of Koanta Nimnestl met up with the necromancer Kaftus as he made his way to Malbeth, capital of Rossacotta, to protect the infant King, Conan III, Lord of All Rossacotta, the Mines of Troppo, and Anything Else He Can Take. Nimnestl became the King’s Bodyguard, the second most hated person in Malbeth, and so began the Regency. As Conan grows, so do the plots and conspiracies in the Palace Royal, as everyone from page to Councilor, seeks to climb the heights. Nimnestl and Kaftus stand as a bulwark against treason, protecting the very precarious stability of Rossacotta, so newly come to civilization. For centuries, Rossacotta was the sewer of an entire continent, offering shelter to any criminal with either money or cunning. It’s very old, very rich, and very bad. Even criminals can love their King and country, and some Rossacottans do unabashedly, confusing the many complex plots even further. Bemused by Rossacottan’s barbaric ways, Nimnestl enlists unlikely allies, such as Polijn, assistant to Malbeth’s worst minstrel. Hailing from Malbeth’s lowest district, The Swamp, Polijn has seen it all. As she creeps delicately around the traps and plots of the Neleandrai—among others—Polijn simply tries to stay alive and out of harm’s way. But unless she and Nimnestl can stop it, no one will avoid the deluge.
On my way back to Hawai’i after a summer spent on the Mainland, my dad let me pick a book at the airport Powells, just in case I ran out of reading material on my six-hour flight. I like cats, and though the cover wasn’t that interesting, I selected Rouse a Sleeping Cat as my paperback of choice from the fantasy section. Once I started it, I plowed right through, finishing before the plane ever touched down, and I’ve since read and re-read it to tatters. I looked for years before finding its two sequels The Sure Death of a Mouse and A Wild Dog and Lone (really a prequel and a sequel), and have since despaired of Dan Crawford ever publishing a fourth installment. So I simply re-read them endlessly, enjoying the cheerfully filthy and venal Rossacottans for all they’re worth—and that’s quite a bit indeed.
Dan Crawford’s Rossacotta is vividly imagined and unabashedly dark and venal. Everyone in the Palace Royal—and in Malbeth and Rossacotta, for that matter—is on the take, everyone. This is decidedly low fantasy, and though he’s never explicit, readers will understand that anything can be bought (or stolen) in Rossacotta; atrocities are simply blinked at, if they’re noticed at all. It’s a brutal world populated by thieves and whores of both sexes, glossed over with the thinnest veneer of civilization, best summed up with this excerpt:
he Palace Royal had always been the center of power in Rossacotta, the place to go for a piece of the action or a share of the loot. Duchies and estates were mere larders, not to be bothered with as long as the servants kept them running. As a result, Rossacotta held few castles and fewer cities in the lands between Malbeth and the mountains.
This atypical pattern had saved Rossacotta during several Holy Crusades against it, over the centuries. “There is naught to take and hold,” complained the ninth-century Turinese general Lysan Redleg. “It is like grasping an armful of water. But we must cleanse this filthy pool.”
Rossacotta remained cheerfully filthy, giving shelter and encouragement to a whole continent’s villains and thieves, in exchange for a large percentage of the take. The country was a blank space on most maps, an unknown land where brigands had the leisure to form into efficient bands of whom it had been written: “They left nothing inside the houses; they left nothing outside the houses. Then they knocked the houses down.”
[ … ]Progress had been slow, but it did seem now that Rossacotta’s long history was moving into a new chapter. Rossacottans strove to remake themselves in a more cultured image. Men who couldn’t spell their own names were dictating odes to secretaries, and women who painted their faces because it was easier than washing them were also painting porcelain, that being a civilized pastime. “Civilized” was the omnipresent word of praise: merchants roared at customers, bullying them to buy new civilized boots, civilized beer, civilized garrotes, and civilized turnips.
It’s absurd, and it’s wonderful.
Nimnestl and Polijn are unusual: strong, clever, individuals who aren’t treated as stock types or overtly sexualized simply because they’re female. They’re very human, and very real, and that was one of the main attractions for me at age thirteen. None of Crawford’s characters are one-dimensional or caricatures, which would be easy to do in this brand of low, humorous fantasy. Instead, Crawford’s writing and his people remain genuine, even poignant at times. Even secondary or tertiary characters are interesting, and will leave readers wanting more. The same applies to the intricate construction of the setting; Crawfors excells at world-building, and has created a place with a very real sense of history and culture. More than anything, his Atfalas/Rossacotta reminds me of Robert Asprin’s Thieves’ World (also published by Ace) for both wit and emotion. Rossacotta, too, would make an entertaining campaign—but I’ll stop the nerdery there.
I cannot recommend these books enough; they’re smart, enormously funny and well-paced reads.
Cover: It’s so bad. Everyone’s proportions are off, and even the leopard—what it’s doing there, I don’t know—is weirdly stubby. Nimnestl’s ensemble is fine, but the King doesn’t have the massed splendour Crawford describes. Ace cheaped out hardcore.
12 July – 18 July