Bryan M. Litfin, The Sword (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), US$15.99
As an inveterate reader, I always delight to discover something new—a new book, a new author, a new genre. The discovery comes with even greater delight when that ‘new’ is genuinely new, up-to-the-month and innovative besides. So it was with a singular exhilaration that I began reading Bryan M. Litfin’s first novel of his first trilogy.
The Sword is cracking good adventure. While it has many of a first novel’s usual weaknesses, its strengths inspire the reader to forgiveness. I couldn’t quite shake the sensation I was reading a rediscovered book by H. Rider Haggard. The story captures the imagination, and won’t let go even after you’ve laid the book aside.
It keeps you reading.
There seems to be sarcastic social commentary in the back story. A ravaging virus and a nuclear holocaust destroy all modern society—except for a few clusters of survivors in Switzerland, who wisely revert to iron age tribalism. Four hundred years after the earth’s crust stops glowing, the Swiss Alps have rebounded to lush fertility, and the neo-feudal kingdom of Chiveis.
Traditional religion in Chiveis is a grotesque form of neo-paganism. Other religions are forgotten or banned or both. The Sword narrates the accidental discovery of a French Bible—more correctly a French Tanakh, since water damage obscured the New Testament—in the ruins of Strasbourg Cathedral. Although the discovery also unearths a Ziploc bag, the book focuses on the subversion of a Bible in a Bible-less world.
As a storyteller, Litfin could have let his story dissolve in shoddy allegory for the redemptive virtue of Torah study. And it is a bit odd that, on discovering the French Scriptures, the characters start a small group Bible study with a suspiciously familiar format.
To Litfin’s credit and the reader’s relief, he (mostly) avoids maudlin allegory. His occasional tendency to have characters preach at one another is, like MacDonald’s, excusable in that the preaching, as preaching goes, is actually interesting. He writes with the courage to let the story tell itself, regardless of spiritual metaphor.
One of The Sword’s strengths is this courage. Litfin almost never takes an easy or obvious plot decision. I was well into the second third of the book before I could guess the conclusion of a character arc. I never guessed the story’s ending.
The writing makes no attempt to be literary. Brevity is not the soul of Litfin’s style. He has a bad tendency to show, then tell, then show or tell or both, again. One learns quickly to glance at sentences, rather than ponder them. His writing is meant to race along on adventures, not linger over unseen depths.
Litfin writes action with Ludlum-like precision and a near-Grisham intensity. He imbues the book with a deep sense of place, evoking the tangled forest shadows, the frozen heights of the mountains marching away into the Beyond. So it comes as no surprise that his best passages are action sequences in the forest.
The Sword has two strengths that give it staying power. Their names are Teofil and Anastasia. It is, simply, their story—their romance.
At its heart, as Litfin has said, The Sword is Teo’s story. It stands or falls on his characterization. When Teo is focused and driven—knowing what he wants and pursuing it—the story clatters along like a Jason Bourne novel. When he dithers, the story dithers.
Teo is a ranger like the best of Tolkien’s Dúnedain, and a scholar on par with Hans Küng. Indiana Jones wanted to be Teo when he grew up. Yet here, again, Litfin avoids the expected square-jawed Stallone stereotype. Teo is more than his professions; they are not him. He is that unusual thing in popular fiction—a complex male lead. For all his machismo, he has not found himself, and he is questioning the roles he’s assumed. There is an artist’s sensitivity to Teo, a repressed insecurity more truly masculine than his bravado.
Ana appears first as a sort of Beatrice, the ideal woman of Teo’s nobler dreams. She quickly emerges as complex, nuanced, and—from Teo’s perspective—entirely unpredictable. She is his equal, and in many ways his superior. Their romance calls to mind the blues/country trope about the influence of a good-hearted woman. Yet here again, Litfin avoids the obvious direction.
Ana remains Teo’s Beatrice. Their love is Platonic and spiritual—almost mystical. But she is a human, practical, outspoken Beatrice who could easily get a job as a corporate executive. She shows Teo—and through him the readers—what ‘a good-hearted woman’ might be like in the real world.
You care deeply what happens to Teo and Ana. You even risk anxiously peeking ahead to see if they’ll be okay. The events surrounding the discovery of the Bible—even the Grand Confrontation at the end—you skim out of curiosity, since Teo and Ana seem to think they’re important. But they’re not what keeps you reading.
This is partly the fault of the other characters. The Sword reads like a pair of mid-grade binoculars. The image in the center is clear, vibrant, crisp. The edges are fuzzy, yellowed. The farther secondary characters get from Teo and Ana, they flatten and blur.
The Sword’s greatest weakness is the antagonist, the High Priestess. I, for one, never believed in her. It’s understandable for the story to have a powerful, hostile head of an organized religion. But the High Priestess is the exact character that occurs to any beginning fantasy writer who thinks, “Why don’t I have an evil high priestess in my book?”—complete with black fingernails and a bewitching smile.
The High Priestess is She, the femme fatale archetype of female sexual power Jung borrowed from Rider Haggard. While intended as a contrast with Ana, she has none of Ana’s complexity or realism. She is static, straightforward, uncomplicated. She embodies fear of eroticism, and male dread of political women. She is, in fact, the exact stereotype of a controlling female Margaret Atwood so thoroughly dismantled in Negotiating With the Dead (Cambridge, 2002).
The High Priestess works for purposes of narrative, and given the overall flatness of the secondary characters is almost forgivable. But when one remembers some great femmes fatale of fantasy literature—MacDonald’s Lilith, LeGuin’s Kossil, Jacques’s Tsarmina Greeneyes, Gaiman’s Other Mother—it becomes clear that Litfin could have done much better than he did.
And yet The Sword transcends its weaknesses. It tells a better story than it is. Teo and Ana exist apart from the other characters. Nor do they rely on external antagonism to advance their story. In the end, the story is theirs, and theirs only.
Teo is his own antagonist. Ana is her own antagonist. Each struggles to help the other overcome themselves.
That’s what keeps you reading.
For the sake of the record:
The author graciously requested the publisher to give Mr. Pond a copy of The Sword for review.
You can buy The Sword here, or in your neighborhood bookstore.