Swordheart by T. Kingfisher. ★★★★
I can’t remember the last time I laughed this much while reading a book. Swordheart is a romantic fantasy novel that’s brimming with humor. Everything Ursula Vernon writes is delightful, and I will continue to eagerly rush to read anything by her. However, my enjoyment of Swordheart is tampered by displeasure at some issues with asexual representation.
Halla is a respectably widowed housekeeper who spent more than a decade looking after an old man… who just died and left everything to her. Unfortunately, his relatives want to keep the money “in the family” and have locked her in her bedroom until she agrees to marry Cousin Alvin. Halla’s taken up the old sword that hangs on the wall and started wondering how to fall on it when she summons the Sarkis, an ancient warrior who has been magically bound to the sword and commanded to defend its wielder. He’s more used to battling armies than in-laws, but Sarkis will help Halla escape and reclaim her inheritance.
Swordheart is probably more of a romance than I normally tend to read. I’m just not usually a fan of stories driven by romance! But I did like Swordheart, and I think it comes down to the humor. I do a lot better with romantic comedies than romantic dramas, and Swordheart was hysterically funny. The best comparison I can think of is a cross between Robin McKinley and Terry Pratchett, although really, it’s 100% Ursula Vernon (side note — if you haven’t read anything by Ursula Vernon, you should do that right now!). Swordheart‘s also good with consent, and Halla and Sarkis didn’t treat each other terribly, which is a must for any romance subplot.
As usual with Ursula Vernon, the characters are delightful. Sarkis is very much of the “grizzled, Viking warrior” type but without the sexism that often accompanies such characters. Halla is a middle-aged widow who doesn’t expect much out of life and has realized that it’s sometimes beneficial to appear stupid. She’s constantly chattering and asking questions, and I love the scenes where she uses inane rambling to make people underestimate her.
Halla and Sarkis are the main characters, but around halfway-in, we get a major supporting character: Zale, a nonbinary priest/lawyer. Zale’s gender is never in question, and they’re as intelligent and hilarious as the rest of the cast. Also, I love the whole fantasy religion of the White Rat, which values practicality among all else and whose priests are mostly lawyers and clerks.
While Swordheart clearly works to be queer inclusive, I was not a fan of the way it treated asexual people. If you’ve been following my reviews for a while, then you probably know that I’m asexual and have seen me talk about this sort of thing before. Anyway, Swordheart has some cringy lines about Sarkis’s attraction to Halla making him feel like a normal man, Halla saying she’d have to be dead not to be attracted to Sarkis, and Sarkis saying his religion has no use for someone who can’t please a man or a woman in bed… but all those are kind of run of the mill type things. They crop up in practically every book I read, and I’m pretty good at ignoring them. Unfortunately, Swordheart goes beyond that. Halla’s dead husband with whom she had a highly unsatisfying sex life is described in a way that reads as asexual. Here are some excerpts from the conversation between Halla and Sarkis about it:
“A man would have to be half-dead not to be interested in you”
“He just wasn’t interested in that sort of thing in general. No by-blows, no complaints from the servants.”
“I don’t blame any man for not enjoying bedsports, but why marry and condemn his wife to the same?”
“He had no choice in the matter… His mother was determined to see him wed someone.”
“They knew, I think, that he had problems. I don’t think they expected him to consummate the marriage at all”
So. I’ve got a lot of feelings about this, and fully unpacking everything about why I dislike this would take more time and emotional energy than I want to invest. I think it comes down to the depiction of asexuality as a problem (that language is specifically used!) and as a difficulty to people who aren’t asexual. In addition, I can’t help thinking about what would become of me if I were forced into a marriage or some of the horrific stories I’ve heard from other ace people. All together, Swordheart winds up suggesting asexual people are broken and wrong, and those are the ideas I have had to struggle a lot against to find self-acceptance. I have enough faith in Ursula Vernon to believe that she didn’t do this on purpose, but the way Swordheart treated asexuality still hurt.
I cannot help but love a book that makes me laugh as much as Swordheart, and I do hope that lots of other people find it and love it even more than I did. However, I do want to give other ace readers a heads up.