SWORDHEART by T. Kingfisher (Book Review)
I don’t really care for rap, but I do own albums by The Lonely Island and Professor Elemental. That’s the power of comedy. It can help people dip their toes in genres that they might otherwise avoid. Maybe you don’t love the main event, but the humor will keep you invested anyway. So it came to pass that I read my first romance novel: Swordheart by T. Kingfisher.
Halla is a respectable widow. After a brief, loveless marriage, she was taken in as a housekeeper by her late husband’s great uncle. After his death, Halla learns that she is the sole heir in his will. Her in-laws take issue with that arrangement and attempt to force her to marry a clammy-handed cousin-in-law in order to keep the money in the family.
Halla doesn’t take it well.
Halla wanted to be the sort of person who yelled at her cousin and forced him to acknowledge that she had a choice in the matter. Unfortunately, it seemed that she was the sort of person who ran up the stairs to her bedchamber, grateful for the reprieve. This was a depressing discovery.
She very quickly meets Sarkis, an ancient warrior trapped inside a sword, sworn to the service of his wielder (provided the previous welder either died or willingly gave the sword away). Since Halla inherited the sword from her dead great-uncle, Sarkis is her servant. He manifests in physical form whenever the sword is drawn. He can be injured or killed (and perform other bodily functions necessary for a romance novel), but the magic of the sword will always restore him. Oh yeah, and he’s super hot.
And thus begins a journey of love and self-discovery. For most of the book, I had no trouble reading it as a low-stakes comic fantasy novel. The main focus of the story is Halla’s cross-country travels to enlist allies to help her fight for her inheritance. She must also navigate bandits and cultists along the road, and her magic sword draws no shortage of unwanted attention. I had a lot of fun with it, but unfortunately, the book lost me a little in its final act. Some Chekhov’s guns go off, the romance aspects took over, and Halla made a particularly stupid and tropey decision that didn’t sit well with me at all.
My lack of experience with the genre made it a little hard to tell which parts were jokes and which were genre conventions. For example, I had to check with romance readers on whether it was a gag or a genre convention when there was a scene of Sarkis umm, shall we say, privately managing his sexual frustration. I was told it happens often in the genre and I guess I learned something. Therefore, I won’t comment on any parody of romance novels that may or may not be going on. I’m not the person to ask.
Most of the humor flowed out of the characters. Sarkis is a tight-laced, stoic warrior with a dark past. He generally plays the straight man, but still gets his snark in. For example, as a man from a long-dead foreign civilization, he has a lot to say about the state of the decadent south–mostly that it should be burned down. We also had Zale, the nerdy priest/lawyer, and Bindle, a gnole who is disdainful of humans. And that brings is to Halla…
Halla, to me, read like a cross between Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling’s character from “The Mindy Project”) and Liz Lemon (Tina Fey’s character from “30 Rock”). She’s a boisterous, awkward, undignified chatterbox whose main gift is the ability to annoy anyone into submission. Imagine Mindy saying, “I’d stab myself through the heart except the sword won’t get through my enormous breasts,” and you just paraphrased Halla. At first I read her as a silly character, but Kingfisher slowly revealed plenty of hidden depths. For example, when stopped on the road by a priest of a dangerous religious sect, she employs her tried and true tactic: blathering at him until he loses interest and goes away.
“—but my mother, the human one, she had terrible nerves. Why, a thunderstorm left her completely deranged. She’d take to her bed for days and call for brandy. And cauliflower. I mean, I don’t know why she wanted cauliflower, I’ve never thought cauliflower was a particularly soothing vegetable, but it certainly made my mother happier, so we’d cook it up whenever the weather started to turn. Do you have any cauliflower?”
Overall, this was a very fun read. It had well-drawn characters with amusing interactions. It also fit into the framework of a larger setting, but read fine as a standalone. As I mentioned, my biggest complaint was how the romance arc dominated the endgame of the book, but I can still see myself reading the sequel.