By the Sword
By the Sword is an example of Lackey at her thematic best. Not so much structure-wise, but that’s ok. I can forgive that (others may disagree). By the Sword is really three short stories, roughly tied together into a novel by our heroine Kerowyn (it rhymes!).
The filk song came first, the book after. I like the song and I like the story, and I enjoy how other Valdemar books make reference to the song. (Kerowyn, in the tradition of her grandmother Kethry and Tarma, hates the song.)
Have I ever mentioned how much I love filk?
This book is almost like a fourth Oath book. Kethry had a brood, and one of her daughter’s offspring is Kero: wannabe hero.
BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS
If you didn’t want to listen, essentially the arc of the first story goes like this: Kero’s family is ambushed, her brother’s fiancée captured, her brother injured. She rides to her sorceress grandmother Kethry, begging for help, so she can rescue her frightened sister-in-law-to-be. Kethry gives her Need, which you’ll remember from the Oath books (or if not: Need only works for women, she gives magic powers to warrior women, sword skills to women who can use magic, and both to helpless women: she’s a feminist wet dream). Kero rescues the girl and moves in with Tarma and Kethry to train to be a mercenary.
Then Tarma takes on a new student, Daren, prince of Rethwellian. This is where things get interesting and very cool.
See, Kero and Daren initially loathe each other, then they become friends, then lovers. Ok, that makes sense, they’re both young and attractive people, so they run a gamut of teenage emotions: jealousy, pride, passion, lust. However, Daren is a prince and a romantic. He decides he’s in love with Kero and Kero has no interest in being a princess. She wants to be a mercenary like Tarma and Kethry were. When Daren gets word that his brother has tried and died in an attempt to kill the queen of Valdemar (Selenay), which in turn led to his father’s fatal heart attack, Daren must go back home, and he tries to get Kero to come back as his bride.
Actually, he simply assumes Kero would marry him.
This leads to the best scene in the whole book.
As Daren leaves, Kero rides up dressed and made up and coiffured like a noblewoman, and simpers at him, and acts as a lady should. Daren is horrified. He realizes that this is not Kerowyn; that this empty-headed act would be expected of her were she to marry him, and that it wasn’t at all what he wanted. So he rides away and she rides away, still friends, following separate paths.
What a great moment for any girl to read in a book! Kero makes a choice to stay true to herself, and she shows why it’s a good choice. She leaves with her self-respect intact. She is free from the trap of princess/whore.
This scene has stayed with me for years. I even drew it once. It’s a terrible drawing, I still have it, no you can’t see it.
The rest of the book is not as good. That said, it’s still an enjoyable romp through the world of being a mercenary. There are two additional short stories-disguised-as-parts. One is primarily about Kero and the Herald Eldan surviving in Karse. In the last story, Queen Selenay hires Kerowyn’s mercenary company, the Skybolts, to help fight Ancar of Hardorn’s forces. It’s an entertaining read, and especially delightful for the relative gender equality, but the first story is the best and richest. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the other two stories are bad. They focus a lot more on plot than character development. I do really enjoy the part where Kerowyn, briefly unemployed, has to work as a bouncer. I would say the latter two stories are more fantasy fluff. Genre-writing, if you want to be prissy about it.
What depth there is in these latter two stories lies in the novelty—and how sad is it that, despite this book’s age, this is a novelty?—of a gender-equal mercenary company. This book was published in 1991 and literature for young women is still screaming for heroes like Kero: tough, confident, honourable women who stand outside the whore/madonna dichotomy and aren’t ever penalized for it. Kero works as a soldier, and she’s exemplary because of her determination, skill, training, and dedication.