Review: Fantasy

Book Review: By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey

If you’re paying any attention at all to the general tendencies of this blog (though I don’t expect you to, and it’s perfectly alright if you’re not), you may think that this is an odd choice to make as a first book to review by Lackey. Well, you’d be right.

I read this book specifically because all other books I’d read by Lackey had been fairy tale retellings, and I wanted something totally original, but not a series (and a trilogy counts as a series; in fact, even a duology counts). So I scoured a Barnes and Noble last I was in the US in November, and found this.

Having not ever read any other books in this universe, I’m sad to say that I was all too aware all the while that I was missing out on things. It’s unnervingly similar to the sensation I experienced when reading Polgara the Sorceress without having read the Belgariad or the Mallorian: no matter how engaging the story itself is, I’m left with this sensation of a person assembling a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle that’s missing about 10 pieces.

Still, I could follow it. Nothing wrong there. But before I get side-tracked, summary!

The back of this book professes that it’s a book about a girl named Kerowyn (granddaughter to sorceress Kendry, which meant nothing to me but apparently did to people who had read more from this universe) who becomes a warrior, abandons her old life, and discovers magic and love.

While this isn’t exactly lying, it’s very misleading. I’m not entirely certain how many years of Kero’s life this book covered, but it seemed to be to be around 20-30 years. The publisher’s summary, while accurate, could give the impression that it’s a story over a couple of years or less, which casts an entirely different light on it.

So, here’s how I would summarize this book:

Kerowyn is not the most typical of girls. When her home is attacked during her brother’s wedding, with no able-bodied men left behind and the bride having been kidnapped, she makes the decision to do something about the situation herself. Though Kero successfully rescues her sister-in-law-to-be, the incident defines her as an outsider within the confines of her own home. Thus urged to leave and find her own way in the world, Kerowyn’s life truly begins. Found to have immense potential as a warrior, she is trained in everything from fencing to tracking, and meanwhile secretly trains the magic she possesses and yet fears. In years to come, Kero would struggle with friendship, loyalty, love, fear and acceptance in the story of a promising girl who grows into a remarkable woman.

Now, back to my opinion.

I will say, first of all, that most of my problems with this book probably had largely to do with the misleading summary, as well as the bizarre self-inflicted idea that I wouldn’t need background from other books to understand this. Seriously, is there no such thing as concise fantasy anymore?

No, I’m not being fair. I know. Some stories just take a lot of books to tell. I couldn’t say one way or another about this series, since I’ve only read this one book, as I keep on reiterating.

Kerowyn was, indeed, a compelling character. A far cry from the Mary Sue the summary may suggest, she is well-rounded, with flaws enough to make you want to strangle her as you’re reading. But only once in a while, because most of the time she’s perfectly correct in her judgments. But not always, which is this book’s damnation and salvation all in one. Kero’s greatest fear is the loss of the status quo; that she will become what all women are—a kept woman, there as a dependent and practically property—combined with a constant sense of self-depreciation. This isn’t a Mary Sue type “Look at me, look at me, I’m modest,” kind of self-depreciation. It’s an irritating, how can you be that blind sort of self-depreciation.

On second thought, that sounds exactly like a Mary Sue. Darn. I think my appreciation of this book just dropped a bit.

But don’t worry! Kero still has flaws in spades: her arrogance, her blindness, etc. All of which move the plot forward, though, so I’m not sure what to make of them. I haven’t run the Mary Sue litmus test on her, and am not sure that I’d care to know what her score would be. I like her well enough.

My favorite bit of Kero was the way that she grew throughout the story. It’s not the best depiction of a girl growing up in the world, but it’s good. There’s a certain naivety that Kero had in the beginning, and a certain wisdom at the end. But more than anything you can feel her developing and growing. (Mostly because there’re a jarring number of time skips.)

What I didn’t like was the gratuitous amounts of sex.

Okay…that’s an exaggeration. Other authors are worse. This is a story about a girl growing up, and I suppose that romances/friendships with benefits feature prominently in those parts of a girl’s life. There are only really 2 partners with whom Kero’s relationships are particularly graphic, and both of these had purposes to the story. Still, I wish it had been less graphic. There was a point at which I felt like I was reading about Kero having sex for 20+ pages straight. I wasn’t, really, because they did other things between the bouts of sex, but this happened so often and each one went on long enough that it got somewhat tiresome. But I do appreciate Lackey’s portrayal of a woman who views this act more as a matter of practicality than a matter of emotion or anything else.

It did bug the heck out of me that Kero fell in love that quickly, though. I get it—there’s chemistry. There also wasn’t the time for the plot to let that part of the story drag out for any longer than it did. But the result is that Kero knows this man of all of—a week? A month?—before she leaves him and never sees him again but remains in love with him for the next decade or so. One could argue that their psychic magic and shared dreams helped with this, but then one would be underestimating the extent of my cynicism. I don’t even feel like the romance was in any way necessary to the plot, but then again it’s the only tie between Kero and the Heralds of Valdemar, which are the subject of another trilogy within this series that I haven’t read—so go figure.

I liked Kero. I liked the overall plot. Nearly every complaint I have could be remedied by reading more inside this series, I’m sure. But I’m not going to—not so much because I’m disinterested (which I am, to be honest, but I’d give them a try anyway) as because I once again have no access to this sort of book. Which is fine by me, but has rendered this review rather lopsided.

I give it 5/10. It was fun. Just poked full of little holes, like an over-worn sweater. If you have more spare time than me, which you choose to use to fill in those holes, then kudos to you!

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