Review: A Woman of the Sword
Occasionally, I’ll come across a book that just resonates with my inner core. At who I am, way down deep. This was one of those. The first time I saw the announcement–the author, the title, the cover–there just wasn’t any question. I was going to buy this book and it would be fabulous. I mean, look at that cover! How can that visual *not* just call to you? Maybe I’m biased by the fact that I’m a father and husband, by how hard I know life can be sometimes. So for me, pre-ordering this one was near instant, unknown publisher or not. Didn’t matter. I wanted to get this book into my greedy hands and devour it as soon as humanly possible.
A WOMAN OF THE SWORD looks to be a stand-alone novel from author, Anna Smith Spark. I’m still at the same location in reading her books that I was after my last review for a book of hers: need to read the second book of her Empires of Dust trilogy. For some reason, despite having all three of them, I still haven’t found the impetus to return to that world. There were so many things I enjoyed about reading the first in that series, but enough that I didn’t to also keep me away. There aren’t very many authors I’ve found that cause such a dichotomy of emotion: GRRM, R. Scott Bakker, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie. Some big names there, yeah? In all of them, I’ve found that usually it is their way with words that latches onto my psyche so strongly, but then some quirk in their methods of storytelling that repels. So far, this author definitely fits that bill.
Lidae is our spyglass through which this tale is told, and it’s put forth in three parts. First, briefly, with her time as a young soldier. Second, when she is a relatively new mother of two that has just buried her husband. Third, when she is older, a soldier again, and her two young sons have grown into influential men. If anything, this is a study on her character during these three influential times of her life, and not necessarily a contiguous or contained story. Unless, of course, you consider that story to be the one of her life.
The world in which Lidae lives is one that seems to be at constant war with itself. It’s one that feels very familiar. European landscape. Kings who rule from castles. Peasants that live in rude cottages near to a small village, but are mostly self-sufficient. Nobility clashes for power are ever-present, and the world seems to be an ever-shifting ocean of battle, power, and loyalties. Add a few dragons, allied individually to this group or the other, and some sorcery that so very few understand, and you’ll begin to understand the threads that have been woven into this tapestry.
As a young girl, the city where Lidae lived was sacked by the army of a king. Her family was killed, and instead of making any choice of convenience, Lidae chooses to sneak out of the city and become a member of the invading army. With a little luck, she is brought into their ranks, and raised to be a soldier like any other youth. But the thing is, she’s *really* good at it. After several years, she chooses to marry another soldier and settle down before she gets too old, hoping to leave her years of soldiering behind her and become a mother. The rub is that she really knows how to be a good soldier, and she doesn’t really know how to be a good mother. And also, the war never goes away.
As with my experience in reading THE COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES (EBR Review), the writing style takes a bit of getting used to, but once you get it, man is it amazing. Strong, and powerful, and impactful. When you read about her being a young soldier in the midst of a battle, swinging her sword and cutting through the ranks of those arrayed before her and her mates, YOU’RE THERE WITH HER. When she’s standing alone alone on a hill, watching the orange flames slowly devour her late husband, YOU’RE THERE WITH HER. And when she wakes to the sounds of soldiers in her home, fumbles to find her hidden sword, and then wildly attempts to defend herself and her two small boys, that prose wraps its clutching fingers around your tender heart, and you have no choice but to BE THERE WITH HER in the bleak hours of that terrifying night. The author takes characterization and just knocks it out of the ever-loving park.
Just on the strength of the prose, the detail of characterization, and the telling of the events, there are going to be a LOAD of people that absolutely love this book. As I kind of intimated above, however, there were a number of aspect of the novel that seriously detracted from my reading experience, but most of them can be laid at the feet of a single concept:
Funny enough, this is the same thing that caused me so much grief when reading her debut novel. In that case, it felt like those motivations had been purposefully excluded in order to deliver all of the twists. Here, their lack was simply a void that made the story feel very ungrounded, and… dare I say… pointless? Instead of learning what she wants, all we get is what she feels. So, there’s immediacy, but no direction. There’s power, but no release. We see the conflict within her (soldier, wife, mother), and the conflict without (king, soldiers, loyalty), but after the external conflict resolves itself, she’s left in the exact same place she was before. We see her turmoil along the way, and her passion for fighting with the sword, but when it comes to making any actual decisive action, she’s woefully inept at even making an attempt. Instead, she’ll run away, or stand and watch, or lie to herself about what is happening, rather than show us what her motivations are by making some kind of choice and acting on it.
A woman that is a soldier to her core, tries to be a good mother to her children while raising them amidst a backdrop of war and violence.
When I got a ways into the third act of the book, it became pretty clear to me what the story had been driving at the whole time. I mean, if the details of that final conflict were indeed to act as the climax of the story, then shouldn’t the pages leading up to that conflict be rife with support in that direction? I’d think so, and thus my overall rating reflects that.
So, did I like the book? Sure. It was enjoyable. Ridiculously so in those beginning chapters. It’s tough sometimes to see what feels like sheer genius be lost for any reason at all, let alone something that seems like it should be at the core of the effort of storytelling. As with the other authors I’ve mentioned above, this one had so much that I loved and so much that ultimately frustrated. I *really* wanted to love this book. From my very first view of that cover, I wanted to love it. And I guess I got some of what I wanted from the experience, but not quite all for which I had hoped.
For those that also read this book, I hope they can find more to love and less to annoy than I did.
- Recommended Age: 16+
- Language: Relatively infrequent, but strong
- Violence: War violence, some bloody sword fights, sexual references
- Sex: A handful of references to anatomy and rape
- A Woman of the Sword —Amazon