You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Friends, we have finally found the kind of romance that was made for me. It’s this kind, where – not unlike in The Curse of Chalion (Lois McMaster Bujold) – it is smoothly integrated into the story without ever overpowering it. It is more pervasive and definitely a lot more mature in this book than it is in Chalion, but it is a side effect of the plot rather than its driving force. I appreciate that. While I could’ve done with just slightly less of the will-they-won’t-they-oh-yes-they-will-oh-wait-no-they-won’t, it isn’t as obnoxious as it is in some other books I could name.
Set in the world of the White Rat, Swordheart begins in a quiet little backwater named Rutger’s Howe with the almost insultingly relatable Halla, a 36-year-old widow with a death wish. That is, she would prefer to stay alive if at all possible, but her life is kind of a hot mess. She was widowed young and has spent the last decade or so as the housekeeper of her late husband’s Great-Uncle Silas, a wealthy packrat with a house full of junk and a pet bird that screams completely normal things like “The veins of the earth run fat with rot!” at odd intervals. Great-Uncle Silas recently died (he was old as fuck) and unexpectedly named Halla inheritor to his entire estate, which would have been more thoughtful if her cutthroat in-laws were not itching to keep the inheritance in their family. When she refuses to be wed to her clammy-handed cousin Alver, his mother Malva imprisons her in her bedroom until she consents to the marriage, and – by mutual understanding – to being quietly murdered after the wedding. Halla meanwhile wishes to leave her new fortune to her young nieces to help pay for their future dowries, and knows that it will automatically pass to them if she dies before any weddings can occur. Thus, when we first meet her she is embroiled in a wild plan to fall upon an old sword left in her room, though her suicidal theories are stymied by her doubts about the size of her bosom. She is convinced that the sword will end up stuck in her left breast without getting anywhere near her heart, but she still manages to draw it, and, in so doing, comes face to face with Sarkis, the grouchy spirit who inhabits the sword.
This unexpected meeting is an enormous culture shock on both ends. Halla is a respectable middle-aged widow from a time in which war is more or less unheard of, and disputes are generally settled in court. Sarkis hails from the grimly named Weeping Lands, a northern territory that no longer exists in Halla’s time. He has been imprisoned in the sword for about 500 years, not really alive but unable to truly die, as a punishment for betraying the people who hired him as a mercenary during his actual lifetime. He has battled dragons and fought alongside countless warriors and died more times than anyone could possibly imagine, but he meets his David in the bare-breasted Halla, whose nonstop questions drive him to the brink of insanity within the first five minutes of their meeting. He is appalled by everything in the decadent southern lands, from the marriage customs to the polytheistic religious system to the sexual ineptitude of Halla’s deceased husband, and he frequently plots aloud to put the entire country to the torch. Nevertheless, they settle their differences well enough to reach a sort of understanding, which carries them from Halla’s house and across a country tamer than anything Sarkis has ever encountered (with the exception of the Vagrant Hills, which they avoid like the plague), all the way to the city of Archen’s Glory. Here Halla requests legal aid from the Temple of the White Rat, and the priest Zale (they/them) is assigned to her case. Packed into a large ox-drawn wagon driven by Brindle, a talking badger-like creature called a gnole, Halla and Zale start the long journey back to Rutger’s Howe, accompanied – as always – by Sarkis.
It should be an uneventful drive, but their trip is dogged by priests of the Hanged Mother, a goddess who hanged herself with her own hair in order to punish an acquitted murderer, and they all become felons when their final altercation ends with Sarkis and Brindle murdering the priests. Their body-hiding detour takes a turn for the worse when they unwittingly wander into the Vagrant Hills, where they encounter transparent flying creatures that suck blood. Despite this unromantic hiccup, Halla and Sarkis battle their mutual attraction but are increasingly drawn to each other throughout their journey. When they drag themselves out of the Vagrant Hills and make it to Rutger’s Howe, where Zale finally gets to sue the shit out of Malva and Alver and Halla and Sarkis begin to experiment with the boundaries of their relationship, their troubles seem like they might be over; but then Halla is betrayed by one of her own witnesses, who is in his turn betrayed by his accomplice, a scholar who wishes to steal Sarkis, you know, for science. Malva and Alver make one final attempt to force Halla into marriage, which fails hideously when a very fed-up Halla stabs Alver and then accuses him of murder. Alver is arrested to stand trial for abduction and mortgage fraud, and Malva is left with nothing.
Halla and Zale then go after Sarkis, who has been reassigned to the scholar against his will and must obey his every command. When the scholar orders him to kill Halla, Sarkis instead falls upon his sword. Even knowing that he’s fine and will be completely healed in two weeks, Halla angrily shoots the scholar in the leg and forces him to return ownership of the sword to her. The scholar is taken to prison, where he dies, and Halla returns to Rutger’s Howe with the sword in tow. Two weeks later, Sarkis negotiates Halla’s bride price with her lawyer (Zale), rejecting the decadent southern custom of accepting a dowry, and they settle down in her hard-won house. As a final grace, Halla learns that she has inherited the estate of her traitorous witness: his will named Great-Uncle Silas as his official heir, and all of his earthly possessions passed to Halla upon both his death and Silas’s. Zale travels to the city of Amalcross to settle the legal details, but later sends Halla and Sarkis an ominous letter hinting at the existence of a second enchanted sword.
This book must have been so much fun to write. With some books you really get the sense that the author was doing exactly what they wanted to do and giving zero fucks, and this is one of them. It was such a joy to read, even with the steamy romance. It covers some serious topics, but the grimness is alleviated by the goofiness. As somebody currently in the middle of editing a very silly fantasy of my own, I really connected with the humor in this book. It felt so much like something I would’ve written; it felt like coming home. I love this world that Kingfisher has built. I love that she’s included little linguistic nuances in her world-building, which other authors might not have thought to do: though Sarkis’s speech is mostly translated into Halla’s language, it struggles with certain niche words that don’t translate very well, and it sometimes gets confused. I am a language geek, and that subtle bit of cleverness tickles me pink. I am also intrigued by the animal-based characters, of which gnoles are only one species. I don’t know too much about the gnoles right now, but I like the way they’ve been integrated into the story, complete with their own social codes and hierarchy.
And, though it doesn’t always work out this way with an ensemble cast, I love all the characters except Alver and Malva because fuck those two they can go drown. Halla is an absolute beast of a character. She acts stupid because it has worked well as a survival strategy, but she is not anywhere close to being legitimately stupid. She is practical, funny, ruthless, kind-hearted, always ready to see the best in every situation. She hides bodies without batting an eye and steps up to every challenge thrown at her without ever losing her humanity. Her eternal optimism balances out Sarkis’s habit of assuming that everyone is plotting to kill her in her sleep, and yet even Sarkis is not completely virtueless. He may be a traitor and a murderer and many other complementary things, and he may have a habit of banging his head against Halla’s headboard and vowing to skewer anybody who ruins her day, but he’s more of a gentleman than Alver. I cannot overstate how much I appreciate his personal code of conduct, in which stalking, sexual assault, imprisonment, and blackmail are considered completely unacceptable, barbaric, things that only a decadent southerner would do. He is so determined to have Halla’s genuine consent that he deliberately holds off on confessing his previous crimes to her until they have returned safely to Rutger’s Howe, because he wants her to be able to reject his courtship without fearing the loss of his protection. Why can’t more literary men be like this?
Yet as much as I love the main pair, I think Brindle and Zale might be my favorite characters. I honestly can’t decide which one I love more. On the one hand, Brindle is adorable. He’s a little crusty and he’s obsessed with his ox, but, dude, his native language includes whisker-based gestures that humans cannot physically replicate, lord, I love that. I am battling an overwhelming urge to pull him out of the book and cuddle him, because I feel like he’d hate that. On the other hand, Zale is a whip-smart lawyer-priest, cool as a cucumber (when people aren’t getting skewered like pigs before their very eyes), resourceful, adaptable, completely dedicated to their work and their clients while maintaining a delightful levity that keeps them from becoming unspeakably dull. I am so into this idea of a religious order that deals strictly with legal issues, whose priests are all trained lawyers with a reputation so fearsome that it almost literally reduces the few administrative staff in Rutger’s Howe to a quivering jelly. They and Brindle play beautifully off each other, and off Halla and Sarkis, whose ongoing romantic struggles become almost a running gag in the wagon. I want a whole book about Brindle and Zale. I could read about their adventures all day.
Now: with all of that said, I do have to address a discrepancy with a previous review of mine. Earlier I criticized Paladin of Souls (Lois McMaster Bujold) for being overly chick-flicky, and I will admit that there is a bit of overlap, even down to some similarly stiff turns of phrase that make me think Kingfisher might be a Bujold fan too. Both books concern middle-aged widows who go on quests after the death of a relative. Both of them run into hot men completely by accident. Both of them fall in love with these men after a series of events designed to spark romance, both of them have their lives completely turned around for the better, and both of them end the book after having been introduced to their respective Inner Goddesses. The difference is that Swordheart is very much tongue-in-cheek, while Paladin of Souls takes itself very seriously indeed. It is not devoid of humor – it would have been unbearable if it had been – but it has a level of pretension that precludes any possibility that it might have been intended as a parody. In my opinion, it would have been better if it had fully committed to either the chick flick angle or the high fantasy angle instead of splitting itself down the middle, but, well, that’s not the point of this review. And, yes, Sarkis does speak somewhat rigidly, but this is balanced by his tendency to slip into absolute flailing panic, such as when he roars at Halla to put on some clothes upon first acquaintance. To be honest, both the noble speeches and the flailing panic are exactly what I want from his character, and I have no complaints. I approve of this chick flick.
The one thing that made me cringe in all of this is the writing, which is a little awkward and repetitive in places: the word “grimly,” for instance, is used far more than it should be. There is also a conversation in which Zale is misgendered twice in one paragraph by the narrator, but I am willing to accept that these are typos, though certainly they should have been caught during the editing stage. Possibly Zale’s character was intended to be male before Kingfisher made them nonbinary. However, and with or without all the grimly spoken dialogue, I still love this book so much that I would definitely take it to a deserted island if I ever got dumped on one. I’m not even bothered by the existence of Alver and Malva: they’re bad, but they’re not so bad that they ruin the book for me, as I was slightly worried that they would. I’m not sure I’ll pursue the rest of the overarching series – Swordheart is in the middle of a rather disconnected handful of books set in the same universe, which seems to begin with the Clocktaur duology – but I am interested in possible future installments in this particular sub-series. Sarkis had two friends who also became enchanted swords, which is leading me to believe that they’re going to be the subjects of at least two future books. Here’s hoping they will be.