Book Review : The Sword Defiant

I received this book for free from Orbit Books in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : The Sword DefiantThe Sword Defiant by Gareth Hanrahan
Published by Orbit Books on May 4th 2023
Genres: Epic, Fantasy
Pages: 576
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Source: Orbit Books

'A gloriously gritty adventure through Hanrahan's astonishing imagination' Peter McLean, author of Priest of Bones THE SWORD CARES NOT WHO IT CUTS
Many years ago, Sir Aelfric and his nine companions saved the world, seizing the Dark Lord's cursed weapons, along with his dread city of Necrad. That was the easy part.
Now, when Aelfric - keeper of the cursed sword Spellbreaker - learns of a new and terrifying threat, he seeks the nine heroes once again. But they are wandering adventurers no longer. Yesterday's eager heroes are today's weary leaders - and some have turned to the darkness, becoming monsters themselves.
If there's one thing Aelfric knows, it's slaying monsters. Even if they used to be his friends.
Set in a world of dark myth and dangerous prophecy, The Sword Defiant launches an epic tale of daring warriors, living weapons and bloodthirsty vengeance.
Praise for Gareth Hanrahan:
'Hanrahan is now one of my favourite authors' Booknest
'I will buy any novel that Gareth Hanrahan ever writes' The Fantasy Inn
'Hanrahan has an astonishing imagination' Peter McLean, author of Priest of Bones
'Mind-blowingly stellar in every respect . . . Fantasy readers, be wise and buy this book, because there's simply nothing like it' Novel Notions on The Gutter Prayer
'A gripping tale that meshes beautifully with its fascinating, darkly inventive setting' James Islington, author of The Shadow of What Was Lost on The Gutter Prayer

I was immediately drawn to the premise of The Sword Defiant, which focuses on what happens after the heroes vanquish the villain and save the world. The story follows Aelfric, an aging hero of legend who still roams the earth after he and his ragtag group of friends, dubbed the Nine, defeated a powerful necromancer called Lord Bone. Aelfric is not only tasked with the protection of the deceased Lord Bone’s sentient sword, which is coincidentally the most powerful weapon in the world, but also forced to confront the fact that evil can appear in the unlikeliest of places. 


“If there’s one thing Aelfric knows, it’s slaying monsters. Even if they used to be his friends.”*


At first, I was hesitant to pick up a novel with a talking sword—no matter how good the premise sounded. I still have nightmares even thinking about the garrulous skull from The Mages Guild quest line in Elder Scrolls Online and live in fear of encountering anything remotely similar. But thankfully my fears were unfounded and I was relieved to discover that the sword in The Sword Defiant, named Spellbreaker, was not completely and inescapably obnoxious. And to make it even better, when Spellbreaker got a little overly sinister and mouthy, Aelfric quickly shut him up. Aelfric is truly the hero the world needs.

Admittedly, I was less pleased at the fact that this sword—which, as I’ve mentioned before, is the most deadly weapon in the world—is constantly left behind by Aelfric, who out of all the Nine, was the only one deemed virtuous and capable enough to protect it. I felt like every time I turned around the sword was being shoved into a box, left unguarded in the rooms of Inns, or driven into the ground outside of a fire as a purposeful gesture of trust to remain unarmed. Surely there should be some exceptions to this weapon-free campsite rule when one is carrying a magical nuclear weapon and the other party knows this and is even another member of the Nine, the people who entrusted the sword to Aelfric in the first place?  


My frustration at these constant and blatantly imprudent actions were further compounded by the fact that Aelfric constantly bemoans his own lack of intelligence and cunning in comparison to the rest of the Nine. I truly wished he would stop telling me how lacking he was in the wisdom department, as I already knew from the sheer fact that he kept leaving his magical evil sword laying around, even after break-ins and failed attempts to steal it. If the decision on what is the most intelligent action to take is obvious even to an inanimate object, like an evil sword, perhaps the character should check himself. 


“If Peir was here, he’d know the right thing to do. He’d know who to trust, who to shun. He’d find the right path forward. He’d tell Alf where to Aim his sword. But Peir was dead and it was up to Alf. Up to him to bring warning. Maybe up to him to defend the city against this new threat. This rising darkness.”


Despite that massive conundrum, I did like Aelfric as a character. A lot of this is probably from the perspective of the novelty of reading about an aging hero after saving the world. After all, Frodo rode off into the sunset to the elves’ Grey Havens after he successfully destroyed the One Ring. And other works frequently fade to black when either damsel or the day is saved. So it was a breath of fresh air to see The Sword Defiant explore the toll of saving the world. Aelfric is an older swordsman, with aches and pains, who isn’t above bumbling and grumbling, but always strives to do The Right Thing. I think he will remind a lot of fantasy readers of another aging fantasy protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, though Aelfric is a lot more idealistic than Geralt. 


The Sword Defiant is at its best when it focuses on the magical city, Necrad. Before the events of the novel, the Nine liberated this ancient city, built by elves, from the grasp of Lord Bone, who had created great and terrible creatures to defend it. After the defeat of Lord Bone, the Nine swore to continue protecting the city of Necrad. The city is somehow both mysterious and fleshed out, so much so that it feels as if it is truly its own character. And its otherworldly beauty and alien-like features—like its own miasma, runes, circling dreadworms, dead defense systems, and a sprawling labyrinth underneath the city—truly jump off the page. It doesn’t hurt that there’s also all kinds of creatures roaming this city, like Witch Elves, Vatlings, vampires, wraiths, and more.


“The world’s saved. You’ve got to figure out how to live in it.”


Unfortunately, the rest of The Sword Defiant’s world-building, outside of the city of Necrad, is not very strong. The elven city in which Aelfric’s sister, Olva, temporarily resides, is not nearly as well described, nor is the small agricultural hometown in which she and her brothers grew up. The magical system seems to relate somewhat to runes and obviously necromancy, as well as a less respectable form of earth magic that drives the user insane with continued usage, but outside of a member of the Nine being the new most powerful wizard in the world and being able to extend his consciousness to floating eyeballs, I know no specifics about how the magic is learned or performed. 


Likewise the pacing and character development of the story leave something to be desired. The Sword Defiant has two narrators, Aelfric and his sister, Olva. Olva is a sheltered widow who never really left her small town before the events of The Sword Defiant, making her (with her sheltered life), the perfect character to comment on the world to readers. But Olva is severely underutilized. Though she alludes to what her brother and the Nine were like in the past, she never shows us in flashbacks. She simply tells us behind a wall of exposition. Similarly, the rest of what we learn of the Nine is told to readers through songs and tales. Though this tracks with a medieval world where songs and tales were some of the only means of entertainment, it’s hard to take them at face value as The Sword Defiant makes it a point to continue telling readers how inaccurate these portrayals are and how most everything told in these tales is not true or exaggerated. 


“The songs never told it that way, though….The songs never spoke of  the messy parts, the compromises and the arguments. They told of the Nine riding to battle on the backs of sea-serpents, but never the quarrels and bargains that came before. In the songs, it was always good against evil…and you knew that however dark the tale got, there’d be light at the end.”


Though I enjoyed reading these epic poems, songs, and tales, as they immersed me more in the world, I was taken aback by the fact that readers are never given this direct glimpse of the Nine in their prime. Each member of the Nine is an archetype—there’s a thief, a paladin, a dwarf, a weak bodied but able-minded wizard, a strong farm boy, an immortal elven princess, and so on and so forth. But we never see these characters back when they were young and taking on Lord Bone and his minions or at low points in their lives where they struggle with their beliefs or anything else of the sort. Though I love that The Sword Defiant focuses on the time after the saving of the world, I do think this lack of portrayal of the younger Nine was an odd narrative decision to make, as it robs readers of the ability to fully appreciate the growth of the characters as they aged or who they have become in the present day, which is a pretty big selling point of the novel.


Similarly, the pacing in The Sword Defiant was lacking. The plot felt stretched thin, as if not much was happening and what was, was being dragged into taking more time than necessary. I struggled reading from Olva’s perspective, because it truly felt like so little was happening in her quest to find her missing son. Sadly, I just could never quite get attached to her (much like my experience with the Nine), as her character was limited to one defining trait: she was a mother. I was more interested in Aelfric’s perspective, as I liked the gruff man, and felt like he was always in the thick of things or taking some sort of ill-advised action, which was exciting in its own irritating way. Aelfric’s relationships with his fellow members of the Nine, though predictable because of the familiarity of the tropes of each character, were the most interesting to me. 


The ending was also interesting in a more bemusing way. I was shocked when The Sword Defiant came to a screeching halt. One minute I was reading a very action-packed, high stakes scene and the next paragraph, The Sword Defiant jumped to having the events told to the reader from a future, outside perspective. I found this incredibly jarring and actually went back and reread the last few pages of the book multiple times because I was convinced I missed something pivotal that accounted for this incredibly sudden change in the method of storytelling. Upon these repeated checks, there was nothing that occurred which accounted for the novel’s sudden switching from Olva’s perspective to that of a tale recounting the current events, which are now apparently part of legend, and then back to the regular narration again—meaning I had no earthly idea the specifics of remotely anything that had just happened in the final battle of the novel. 


If the abrupt changes in narration weren’t enough, I also struggled to grapple with the events of the ending themselves in such a short time period. Something very important is revealed at about 90-95% of the way through The Sword Defiant and I wasn’t given much time at all for it to sink in before the novel abruptly ground to a halt and ended. In a way, this makes me really want to read the next novel in the trilogy even more, so that I can understand what exactly happened and what the implications of the events actually were, because at this point, not only the details, but the basics are feeling pretty murky to me. I wish I could have traded in more of Olva’s perspective for more time at the ending of the novel. 


The Sword Defiant offers some truly unique world-building in the form of its city Necrad. Though the novel’s character development and magic systems aren’t nearly as strong as the characterization of this city, I really enjoyed the exploration of the theme of what happens to the heroes after the world is saved and they’re no longer young and hale. I think fans of The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and The Witcher series will find a lot to love in this book and I look forward to reading the future entries in the series. 


*All quotes taken from an ARC and subject to change at time of publication.


Book Review : The Sword Defiant - Blogging with Dragons

Posted April 6, 2023 in ARCS, Book Reviews, Fantasy

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