The Harrowing Beauty of A Woman of the Sword

The cover of A Woman of the Sword by Anna Smith Spark

I love books. I enthuse about books. But roughly once a year, I find a book that really strikes me, that grabs hold of my brain and screams “this story matters!” I’ve just read one of those books, so let me tell you why I’m going to spend the next year raving about A Woman of the Sword.

The Beauty of the Horrifying

Anna Smith Spark writes like no one else. In A Woman of the Sword, as in her previous Empires of Dust trilogy, she pairs beautiful writing with harrowing content, to spectacular effect.

The description here is wonderfully evocative. Smith Spark has a knack for picking out the most compelling details and presenting them with gripping immediacy. Whether it’s flowers beneath a tree or the blood dripping from a blade, it’s all so vivid.

The same is true for the characters. She crams you right inside their heads, bringing them to life in all their wonders, flaws, and myriad contradictions. These characters captivate.

This makes for beautiful writing, which is then turned to dark ends. A Woman of the Sword is a story full of grimness and disillusionment, presenting us with terrible situations in which characters are trapped by their own flaws. From beginning to end, it’s merciless in what it depicts, both the physical details and the emotional strain the characters go through. This isn’t a world where happy endings are guaranteed, or even redemption. It’s one where terrible things are presented in beautiful ways, where hope exists not in spite of but because of the carnage around it.

The brightness of the prose and the darkness of the story elevate each other.

Women’s Lives

Lidea, the protagonist of A Woman of the Sword, is a warrior turned mother turned warrior again, in a setting where sexism is baked into society. And sure, sexism features in most story settings, just like it features in our society, but what this story does so well is to bring its mechanisms and its emotional impact to life.

Lidae lives in the contradictory expectations placed upon her by people who can accept her as a warrior so long as she’s not a mother, and as a mother so long as she’s not a warrior. She is never allowed to be her complete self, and this drives her every terrible experience, her every ill-judged decision. As a man, I don’t have to live through this shit, but I know it’s out there. This book brings it mercilessly to life.

It also brings alive the more specific strains of motherhood, of being filled with both love and frustration at the little ones, at being both fulfilled and constricted. It shows aspects of parental experience that we seldom look at, never mind speak out loud.

The Soldier’s Experience

Many writers have tried to evoke the life of ordinary warriors, from John Keegan breaking the historical mould with The Face of Battle to Joe Abercrombie hitching humour to grim action in The First Law. Anna Smith Spark does some of the best work ever at this.

Anything I say here comes with an important caveat. I’ve never been a soldier. I’ve never been in a war. I read about war a lot, but I’ve got no direct experience, so I can’t say how real this stuff is, but…

It is really, really convincing. Smith Spark shows the mundanity of military life that Spike Milligan highlighted so well in his war memoirs; the uncertainty Joseph Heller highlighted in Catch-22; the brutal, confusing mess from films such as Saving Private Ryan. Her war is horrible and it’s dull, but the attraction of it is still clear. The warriors of her world find purpose and companionship amid the mud and blood.

What they don’t find is empowerment. They are repeatedly misled, misused, and kept in the dark. I get that that isn’t every soldier’s experience, but historically, it’s an important one, and it sheds light on how often we’re not as empowered as we feel we are.

Lidae holds the power of life and death over others, while being, in a very real sense, powerless herself.

Communication Breakdown

The biggest way in which Smith Spark disempowers her characters, and in the process makes them into convincing people, is through their acts of communication. Or, more accurately, their failures of communication.

I don’t know about you, but I seldom understand my own thoughts and feelings in the moment that I’m having them, and I struggle even more to turn them into the right words, especially under pressure. Especially when talking to the people I love, which is a kind of pressure in itself. Fictional characters are always so much better at this than me.

Not these characters. They’re horribly, hauntingly bad at communication, just like real people. Lidae repeatedly makes her own life worse because she can’t understand or express her needs and feelings. She repeatedly makes wildly incorrect assumptions about what other people are thinking, feeling, and saying.

It’s just like real life.

I’ve seldom read anything where the impossibility of knowing and expressing yourself is so well represented. I felt for every lousy choice Lidae made, not because I would have made the same ones, but because she got there through the same paths that lead to my lousy choices. She’s desperately trying to understand her love and how it shapes her, and she’s desperately failing.

Comprehending the Incomprehensible

The philosopher Timothy Morton talks about how things of significance are always too big for us to know. All we experience is our own narrow perspective, a small part of the whole.

For me, this book expresses that. Within its pages, we’re presented with things of huge significance – love, war, motherhood – and we’re repeatedly shown the consequences, good and bad, of one woman’s fumbling attempts to perceive them. It’s a sad, dark story, but an uplifting one, both because it’s so beautifully written, and because it feels so true.

Don’t read this book when you need comfort.

Don’t read it when you’re feeling vulnerable.

But please, I urge you, go read it.

It’s amazing.

Histories of Violence – the FantasyCon 2017 Fighting Panel

Fighting features a lot in fantasy literature. And so it makes sense that almost every FantasyCon has a panel about writing combat. This year’s featured:

What Makes a Good Fight?

Adrian talked about how a well-written fight scene has a clear perspective. The fight should be seen from a specific point of view but the writer should also know what’s happening beyond that viewpoint. Anna said she focuses on sensations and emotions, bringing the fight to life. Stewart went more specific on this, saying that as a reader he likes to feel breathless.

Stewart also said that the fight should fuel what else is going on for the character. Related to this, Simon said that there needs to be a reason for the fight, something to care about.

The Influence of Other Media

Discussing the influence of other media on their work, Stewart said that good computer games are an influence for him, but not films, as none of them live up to his experience from HEMA.

The panellists picked out a few examples that have good lessons – the meaningful action of Sam Peckinpah, the sensory richness of costume dramas, the mess and chaos of Saving Private Ryan. But as Adrian pointed out, trying to replicate a good scene from a film wouldn’t make a good written fight – they work differently.

This led into an interesting discussion of the aesthetics of violence in fiction. Simon said that it should be simultaneously appealing and appalling. Stewart said that the tunnel vision that comes in a fight creates a sense of intimacy and even camaraderie between opponents. Anna described it as something that can be deeply mindful.

As Adrian pointed out, if the reader knows more about the fight and its consequences than the participants then this can add to its power and emotion. There is, as Anna brilliantly described it, a moment of human tragedy as you see the mistake unfolding.

Accuracy Versus Entertainment

As David pointed out, most real fights are short, ugly, and not cool. This raised a question – is accuracy not a good thing?

Stewart discussed how, in late medieval and renaissance fighting manuals, most moves have only three steps – by then you’ve won, lost, or backed off. If you don’t hit first and you don’t back off, you might get hit back. If you’re writing something grim, there’s a place for that harsh realism.

Anna said that it depends on what you want to write. This is fantasy, and there’s a place for the gorgeous romance of Errol Flynn-style swashbuckling. As Adrian said, fights with pezazz are part of what readers expect from fantasy.

Final Points

A couple of interesting points came out near the end.

Adrian discussed how there are three levels of fights, each requiring different skills from both combatants and writers – the duel, the skirmish between a few people, and the mass battle. He considers the skirmish the hardest to write, as you’ve got multiple combatants but can’t just treat them as a chaotic mass.

Stewart said that, historically, battles with melee weapons tended to have surprisingly low casualties. Victory came through intimidation and breaking the enemy’s will, not through killing.

Overall, this was an excellent panel with a lot of useful insights. There’s a reason why the fighting panel is a staple of conventions.