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The Minikins of Yam by Thomas Burnett Swann2.5 stars
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Buy from IndieBoundI’ll give you a minute to chuckle at that title. The relatively obscure Swann, though never what I would call a great novelist, remains a guilty pleasure of mine due to his remarkable imagination and romantic approach to the sort of wildly mythical storytelling that simply doesn’t go on any more. Yes, much of what one reads in a Swann novel can be dated or just plain silly. But at their best, his books are still intriguing enough to capture your interest. The sheer novelty of reading a novel utterly unlike any other can often be a hook all on its own.

Like most of Swann’s novels, The Minikins of Yam offers us an outré ancient world — in this case Egypt — where the creatures of myth (basilisks, phoenixes, the strange horned humanoids of the title who seem to live only for sex) exist alongside true historical characters and settings. The 12-year-old Pharoah, Pepy II, who reigned as one of the final Old Kingdom pharoahs, is a humanitarian soul, sneaking out of the palace at night in disguise to distribute largesse among the poor and downtrodden. But Pepy is threatened by the machinations of his sister and queen, who is plotting his murder so she can enjoy absolute rule — a stunt she just might get away with since she can disguise the murder as a sacrifice to assuage a population panicked by the untimely and prophetic arrival of a phoenix on the palace walls. Meanwhile, Pepy’s loyal subject Harkhuf is in the land of Yam (I’m guessing modern-day Uganda), where he discovers the minikins in the form of Immortelle and Tutu. Immortelle proudly announces herself as a whore, seduces Harkhuf in a gonzo scene whose content is at odds with the mythic, fairy-tale prose Swann uses to convey it, and says howlers like “My breasts have been likened to the Apples of Love. Observe the red of the nipples.”

Pepy learns of the murder plot and, in an inadequately explained process resembling telepathy, contacts Harkhuf (conveniently interrupting an argument between Immortelle and the ghost of Harkhuf’s dead wife) and implores Harkhuf to come home and save him. Immortelle summons a giant roc and they fly home posthaste. Thence our heroes become embroiled in figuring out if Egypt is in fact due to suffer the droughts and disasters the phoenix’s arrival augured.

If any of the above has you in a fit of the giggles, well, that neatly sums up the experience of reading a Swann novel. But how on earth can you dislike a book so gleefully bizarre? Particularly when Swann does succeed in slipping in a few truly poetic, magical moments. In this day and age, Swann — not to mention his style — has fallen into obscurity. But if you can unearth this musty little rarity from a secondhand seller somewhere this side of Egypt, and think you might enjoy a brief, 155 page sojourn into a truly unique creative mind, then by all means, sally forth.