Book Review: By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey

by_the_swordI think I’ve decided to do a marathon of the Heralds of Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey and the next book chronologically for me was By the Sword (fantasy 492 pages).

“Granddaughter of the sorceress Kethry, daughter of a noble house, Kerowyn had been forced to run the family keep since her mother’s untimely death. Yet now at last her brother was preparing to wed, and when his bride became the lady of the keep, Kerowyn could return to her true enjoyments – training horses and hunting. But all Kerowyn’s hopes and plans were shattered when her ancestral home was attacked, her father slain, her brother wounded, and his fiancée kidnapped. Driven by desperation and the knowledge that a sorcerer had led the attack, Kerowyn sought her grandmother Kethry’s aid, a journey which would prove but the first step on the road to the fulfillment of her destiny. For facing her family’s foes would transform Kerowyn into an outsider in her own land, a warrior bound to the spell blade Need, and a mercenary forced to choose between loyalty to her comrades in arms and the Herald Valdemar, whom she had rescued and who in his turn had helped awaken her to the true meaning of love and to her own unique powers of magic.”

I think this is actually only the second time I’ve read this book, though it’s been on my shelf for years, if not decades. Maybe it’s where I was at in my life the first time I read it, or maybe I read it out of sequence or confused it with different parts of the Valdemar series. Whatever the reason, I can’t imagine why I haven’t read this book as many times or more as I’ve read the Queen’s Own trilogy.

Probably one of the only real issues I have with this book, or really any of these that I consider the “core” Valdemar books, and that’s how so many characters in this work have such similar names. In Queen’s Own, there’s Keren. Now, in By the Sword, Kerowyn and Kethry are both introduced. Alternatively, there’s also Talia and Tarma. It just seems like a lot of very closely placed names and I can think of at least once during my reading of By the Sword when I almost got confused about which character was which.

Kerowyn spends her entire life throughout the book as responsible and dedicated as a person could be and I found that to be incredibly magnetic. When the book starts, she’s roughly fourteen years old and she took on the full responsibilities of taking care of the keep and making sure everything that needed to get done, got done. She assumed responsibility for managing the keep and also for preparing everything for her brother’s wedding feast. When she left the keep in shambles to get help for the situation, she did so out of a sense of responsibility. When she chose her profession and made the conscious decision to work to be the best mercenary she could be, she did so out of a sense of responsibility that there were people who were unsuited to a life of violence and that those who could protect them should do so to prevent unnecessary deaths. She took more responsibility because more people stood did get hurt if she didn’t. I really do think that Kerowyn’s sheer ability to feel a responsibility to those around her and to the world at large was the most drawing factor about this book for me.

By the Sword also makes a lot of really great points about sexism and how even though people say they understand sexism, they really don’t have any clue about the sheer depth of those sexist beliefs and behaviors. Most people have a lot of societally-instructed behaviors and even thought-processes which clearly demonstrate an imbalanced world. Kerowyn has to take care of the entire keep by herself with limited resources and assistance and her father and brother don’t seem to be inclined to help her with anything. When Daren starts training with her, he’s pompous and arrogant and assumes that because she’s a lowly girl, she couldn’t possibly be good at things like sword work, tracking, or strategy. As she proves that she’s a natural he balks at the idea that she doesn’t want to just become a simpering fool and marry him. In fact, he’s rather taken back by her distinct lack of interest or desire to marry him. He’s positively shocked that getting married and producing a litter of children isn’t a lifestyle she’s suited for, let alone wants at all. I marked the entire section from page 188-191, where Kerowyn throws in Daren’s face all of his unrealistic expectations and how it would destroy her to pretend to be everything she isn’t.

There’s a lot of action in this book, which makes sense for a book about a mercenary, working to make her way in a rough world. I think what this book does that a lot of fantasy stories don’t is that this book shows the less “glorious” aspects of fighting, war, and battle. There’s food and ration shortages, cold days, fighting for greedy merchants who lack decency, mildewed tents, and a lot of time spent starving with no resources. The “glory” and “bounty” all come from loss, having to add more names of lost friends after every battle, and the horrible things that can happen when someone is in charge of something they aren’t prepared or suited for. It’s sometimes amusing to me how books designed for entertainment purposes can often teach us more about our own worlds than even history lessons.

All in all, I’m glad I own this book and I’m glad that I reread it so close to finishing the Queen’s Own trilogy. I think I caught a lot more of the subtle details sprinkled throughout this book with that trilogy fresh in my mind. I think this book is a very high three on my rating scale. My paperback is very thick with smaller print and a lot of tightly crammed words on quite a few pages, otherwise, it might have rated higher.

Works cited: Lackey, Mercedes. By the Sword. New York: Daw Book, Inc., 1991.

About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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