By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey (Kerowyn's Tale: Book 1)

Having enjoyed Brightly Burning, and being in the mood for an easy going bit of fantasy, I decided it was finally time to get back to Valdemar, and what’s more, conclude the story of the war with the horrid prince of Hardorn from Arrow’s fall. Unfortunately, looking at the background material which began Mage Winds, the book that follows Arrow’s Fall, I realised that there was yet another confrontation with Hardorn and yet another character’s story I needed to bring myself up to speed with first.

16 year old Kerowyn hates being a noble lady. Since her mother’s death she has run her father’s household, managing the servants and supplies, and even making all the domestic arrangements for her brother’s wedding feast, though she would much rather be off engaging in such unwomanly pursuits as riding, hunting and archery. When however a bunch of bandits kidnap her brother’s fiancé, wounding or killing every able bodied man in the castle, Kerowyn knows it’s up to her. With little knowledge of swordplay or tracking, Kerowyn seeks help from her grandmother, the mage Kethry, who presents her with the magical blade called Need, a sentient sword whose purpose is to avenge the wrongs done to women. This is only the start however, since Kerowyn has a long journey from overlooked daughter to famous mercenary captain, a journey whose course changes when she encounters one of the heralds of Valdemar and his equine companion, and learns there might be things worth fighting for beyond a mercenary’s wage.

It is odd, even though the start of this book was more than a little predictable, I was captivated by the beginning. Lackey’s relaxed style, as well as small touches of nuance ensured that things stayed interesting and kept my attention despite the plot hardly being an original one. For example, though Kerowyn repeatedly emphasised her own dislike for managing her father’s household and how much she resented her father for putting her in this position (and even her mother for dying and leaving her with it), at the same time, we begin with Kerowyn not just a down trodden domestic, but actually someone with authority, status and management skills.

Similarly, even Kerowyn’s resentful attitude towards her father is questioned at first, with her remembering moments of bonding and her father’s pride at her accomplishments.

This meant that though we move to a rather cliché ridden mission of the hero bestowed with a magic sword, having to rescue a fair damsel from sacrifice by an evil warlock, I was still interested, especially in seeing Kerowyn grow up, and maybe let go of some of her resentment and preconceptions.

It also did not hurt that Lackey’s writing was here as readable, friendly and fast paced as ever, descriptive enough to grab my attention, but not so overly florid as to drag, and after all, who doesn’t love to see a hero win out against overwhelming odds.

Unfortunately, I quickly realised the odds were actually very much in Kerowyn’s favour, Far from the underpowered hero up against much stronger foes, the whole rescue mission had the feeling of a level 1 RPG character given a legendary game breaking item, mowing down what otherwise would be challenging opponents with one easy swing. This was my first indication of the major problem with Kerowyn’s tale, namely Kerowyn herself.

Lackey has a gift for taking underdog characters and writing stories that let us empathise with their success, and the tale of an overlooked girl escaping household drudgery who grows up to be an awesome warrior is one which should gain everyone’s sympathy. The first problem with Kerowyn however, is that she doesn’t start off as particularly downtrodden.

Compared to the incredibly sexist, repressive society which Talia escaped in Arrows of the Queen, Kerowyn’s position is actually one of considerable authority and skill, indeed there are a few occasions, for example when she notes how many servants her magician Grandmother would need if it weren’t for her use of magic, that Lackey indicates the responsibilities Kerowyn undertook and the skills she learned. Kerowyn is even proud and a little snobbish about her position, assuming that a poor girl married to a cottager must have an easy time having only one small house to manage.

Yet, not just Kerowyn, but her grandmother, and indeed her grandmother’s sword-wielding partner Tarma (who trains Kerowyn in combat), spend a massive amount of time belittling anything that smacks of traditionally feminine arts and the women who practice them, Kethry even going as far as castigating her own, now deceased, daughter for not desiring to become an outdoors woman. Even when rescuing her brother’s fiancé, Kerowyn is full of insulting comments on her being a “ninny” (an often repeated term used of women in the book), or even a baby.

With a few indications that Kerowyn’s father might not have been the authoritarian monster Kerowyn paints him as, I thought at first that Kerowyn, indeed much like Vanyel, would perhaps have to reconcile with her family at some stage, and indeed learn respect for women who didn’t share her life choice to become warriors.

Unfortunately however, this never happened, and Kerowyn’s attitudes were never challenged. Indeed, not a few reviewers (even those who like the book) have described Kerowyn; not to mention Tarma and Kethry, as sexist, even misogynist, and it’s not hard to see why. Tarma and Kethry are the protagonists of another Valdemar duology, one which my lady did not recommend, and where normally I would be eager for their backstory, given their judgemental attitudes and Tarma’s rather abrasive personality, I actively don’t want to spend more time around these two.

Another major problem with Kerowyn, is that she is a complete and total succeedinator! Lackey follows Kerowyn’s life through 20 years, through several episodes, showing how she runs into a number of conflicts in her life before getting wrapped up in the war with Hardorn. Unfortunately, fascinating though many of these conflicts are, they always end the same way, with Kerowyn hulking out of them with little effort.

For example, Need’s purpose of avenging the wrongs done to women might be a noble one, however that doesn’t stop the sword trying to hijack Kerowyn’s mind to achieve its goal. This potentially interesting conflict however ends abruptly when Kerowyn’s iron will is simply too strong for the sword to handle, so it just gives up trying. Likewise, when Need refuses to attack an evil priestess, she is conveniently clobbered before she can threaten Kerowyn.

This literally happens every time Kerowyn looks like being in a bad situation. Stuck in a mercenary company with an incompetent captain? Well don’t worry, Kerowyn will just “not on my watch!” her way out of things before the situation gets too bad. Goaded into a fight with a chauvinistic arsehole which gets her in trouble with the city authority? Well never mind since Kerowyn’s powerful friends are more than ready to back her up. There is even an honest to goodness deus ex machina moment, with Need suddenly manifesting hitherto unseen magical powers of protection at the most convenient time.

Even the book’s emotional conflicts have solutions that are explosively easy, for instance when Kerowyn’s lover and fellow trainee in swordsmanship, the young prince Daren develops deeper feelings for her which she doesn’t reciprocate in the same way, Daren helpfully offers her a position at court requiring her to be a proper noble lady and give up being a warrior, meaning that she can quite freely play upon his guilt, and his respect for her, while reiterating what empty headed ninnies women who care about their appearance are. Of course, Kerowyn is too awesome to need to be careful with a friend’s emotions, or worry about hurting another person, doubly ironic given that Need is bombarding Kerowyn’s mind with details of women suffering through emotionally abusive relationships just before that point, an irony Lackey’s editor really should have caught.

Kerowyn also indulges in at least a little Vanyel style self-obsession as well, such as when she complains about her loneliness, having only had a few lovers over ten years; you know just four merchants, and three bards, and two other fellows, or when she constantly harps about her need to be “self-reliant”, even as she rather condescendingly notes that mercenaries should protect those who can’t protect themselves, especially those silly little women who do nothing but look pretty, stay at home and have babies.

For all of that however, the book did have its good points. Lackey’s romantic scenes, especially in a book so concerned with rather misapplied gender relations, were genuinely rather lovely, indeed while I did not like Kerowyn’s cruel application of guilt to end her relationship with Daren, Lackey does do a very good job of portraying a pleasant, if believably unsatisfying, first experience of love, which lets both parties remain friends later on. When Kerowyn did meet her soulmate, Lackey was able to show this nicely, in both emotional, verbal and even tastefully sweet physical interactions. Indeed, the one time when the narrative did not seem to be effusively praising Kerowyn, is when she leaves this relationship behind for a rather tenuous reason, failing to pursue it later seemingly just because it wasn’t time for the book to finish.

There were also, as is often the case with Lackey, a number of supporting characters who I really wanted to see more of, like Wharrl, Tarma’s magical wolf partner, or Kerowyn’s mercenary friends, many of whom seemingly had interesting stories of their own, such as specialists, who had come from the far south and joined the mercenaries with his skills at training messenger dogs, or Quentin, the company’s chief wizard who was just out for adventure.

The book’s episodic pace did on the whole feel rather slow and aimless, but this wouldn’t have mattered if Kerowyn was someone I actually wanted to spend time with. That being said, there were still details of the world of Valdemar, from horse breeding nomad clans to the different gradations of magic, as well as getting an outsider’s view of Valdemar with its magical defences, not to mention the Heralds, that did hold my attention.

Unfortunately, since so many of the details even of the world or of daily life just seemed to be inserted for Kerowyn to show how amazing she was, as when we get a long explanation of usual mercenary gear and living conditions vs amazing captain Kerowyn’s innovative solutions and inspired leadership, or how Kerowyn uses her awesome family connections to setup a horse breeding fair and greatly enrich her company, even my overall interest in exploring the fantasy world waned.

Matters did pick up in the book’s final three hours, when Talia reappeared and the thread of Hardorn was introduced; though seeing Talia, a character I like and respect, become yet another member of the Kerowyn fan club was downright annoying.

That being said, the details of the war and the very nasty magic the Prince employed were a nice setup for the conflict and reminded me just how dangerous the prince is. Indeed, where initially I considered it a bit of a shame that the prince himself did not appear, if viewed just as a faint in the upcoming battle and a foreshadowing of what is to come, it almost makes sense to keep him in the background.

While the ending was decidedly predictable, with the cavalry coming over the hill, and several destined connections being fulfilled, since the finale featured a number of characters I liked a lot more than Kerowyn, I was at least a little invested, and fortunately Lackey didn’t drag out the ending too much, another reason the ending felt more like a stop along the journey, than a final destination.

Lackey, like Anne McCaffery, has always had a gift for upbeat fantasy, for taking abused, beaten down and overlooked characters from their awful situations, and showing how, once they’re in an accepting environment, they can grow, and change and flourish. Equally, seeing lady warriors buck the system and struggle against prejudice should by rights be an amazing, and hopeful story for anyone.

Unfortunately, with Kerowyn, Lackey strayed off the path of upbeat fantasy, and wandered straight into power fantasy, discarding nuance, struggle and genuine character growth in favour of simply making the character so perfect she became both arrogant and undeserving. Not to mention overshooting affirming a woman’s right to choose her own life, and landing straight in the very dismissive sexism the book was intended to challenge. Indeed, Lackey did a far better job at confronting such things in Talia’s story, or with characters like Vanyal’s sister, than she does here.

Though it plugs a gap in history, and has a few nice moments, the overbearingly irritating main character and extremely misapplied message mean that I honestly can’t recommend By The Sword, albeit that since this is, thankfully, the only book featuring Kerowyn as the main protagonist, I can be certain that matters will improve in the future.

5/10 The odds are ever in your favour

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