By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey

If you’re following along with #ReadingValdemar, you may be wondering what the heck By the Sword is doing on my blog. Here’s the original schedule Jackie @ Death By Tsundoku and I set:

I started reading Winds of Fate in early April only to discover on the first two pages that something was amiss. The prologue described Prince Ancar of Hardorn’s attack on Valdemar. I knew about that, as it was covered in THE HERALDS OF VALDEMAR trilogy. But then it said that a mercenary named Kerowyn, leader of the Skybolts, helped Valdemar defeat Prince Ancar when he attacked again two years later. Wait, what? Valdemar hired mercenaries instead of using only heralds?? I read the first page of Winds of Fate, and there she was, Kerowyn, a prominent character. Well, gosh blast-it. I text Jackie while she was at work (it was important!!), and we decided to read the stand-alone novel By the Sword to learn about Kerowyn and this second war with Prince Ancar. Totally worth it!

At the beginning, Kerowyn is a fifteen-year-old daughter of an unimportant nobleman in the country Rethewellan, caring for his keep after her mother died. At the wedding of her brother and his new bride, the keep is attacked and nearly everyone is killed, including her father. The bride is kidnapped, and there’s only one person left to rescue her: Kerowyn. The teen knows nothing about fighting, so she rides off to her reclusive granny’s house — reclusive because Kero’s father doesn’t want his mother-in-law the mage anywhere near his place. Grandma Kethry gives Kero a sword called Need that is designed to protect women and kill bad men. Yes, a man-hating sword.

Kero rescues the bride and leaves to visit her granny again. There, she learns her grandma has a lifelong bond with a mercenary named Tarma, who trains Kero and a prince of Rethwellan named Daren into warriors over several years. Daren returns home to be Lord Marshal, and Kero finds work as a mercenary — a solider for hire with no nation to claim her.

Kerowyn is from Rethwellan, not Valdemar. See Haven? That’s the capital of Valdemar, where heralds live.

LOADS of stuff happens from there, all culminating in the battle between Valdemar, led by Queen Selenay, and Hardorn, led by Prince Ancar. I knew that was coming from the prologue in Winds of Fate. Lackey really gets into strategy, how mercenary companies work, leadership skills, battle horses, and introduces new Gifts (like commanding animals or seeing through their eyes). This is an epic, feminist, kick-ass tale of fighting.

My favorite part of By the Sword was getting so much perspective from a character born and raised in a different country — not Valdemar. In Valdemar, it’s common to see heralds and know about their Gifts. No one in Valdemar is a mage that we know of, as the last one was Vanyel, who died hundreds of years ago. Outside of Valdemar, there are definitely mages, like grandma Kethry. Kerowyn’s mercenary company has mages in its employ. Prince Ancar has mages. Everyone seems to have mages except Valdemar. And there is a reason: back when Vanyel realized the mage population in Valdemar was declining too fast, he cast a spell that would cause little spirits to *poke poke poke* the brain of any mage who set foot in Valdemar, driving them nearly mad. Faithful readers like Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku and I know what’s up!

Kitty wonders if I will read to her. No, Kitty, this book isn’t for you, it’s for #ReadingValdemar.

People don’t have bad feelings about mages outside of Valdemar. They are, however, leery of Gifts. Kerowyn can speak and listen to others using her mind, but she tells almost no one about this Gift. In addition, characters’ attitudes suggest that people outside Valdemar don’t think heralds are that great. What a surprise! Because Lackey has always focused on Valdemar, she indoctrinated me to the wonders of heralds, but other countries fail to see them as better than mercs with honor, like Kero.

While that sword Need is a man-hater, Kerowyn’s story is quite feminist. Upon saving her new sister-in-law, Kero is reminded how dainty women are supposed to be and thinks:

Blessed Agnira, spare me from “womanly,” if this is what it is. . . .Just — spare me.

After Kero loses her virginity, she is disappointed that her lover achieved orgasm and she did not. There is a long history of women denied sexual pleasure for various reasons, but in By the Sword, Kero knows what she deserves:

Sated, he just rolled happily over into the tumbled blankets, and went right to sleep.

She could have killed him.

Twice. . . .

And nothing ever quite made up for the letdown of that first night.

And he never understood, or even noticed.

Mercedes Lackey’s novel comments on equal pay, equal respect, equal choice in occupation and extra-curricular activities, equality in job promotions, and sexual equality. I love it! Nothing is forced; it all comes naturally, like you’re not being lectured.

Look at those purple pants, the teal scarf, the whatever-those-are shoulder pads! So 80s!

The only negative I’ll say about By the Sword is the author’s lack of grace when writing a non-white character. Instead of referring to Kerowyn’s co-commander of the specialist company by his name, Geyr, like everyone else’s, he’s always “Geyr’s black face” or “Geyr’s black head.” It’s so clumsy as to seem a parody. His co-commander is Shallan. Not Shallan with the blonde hair, or Shallan the lesbian. Just Shallan.

Another pro is how funny Kerowyn is. She knows what she likes and doesn’t, and she makes her preferences clear. When she’s trapped in hiding with a herald, they start sharing information about themselves to pass the time:

“I collect rocks,” he offered.

“Great pastime for someone who spends his life on horseback.”

“I didn’t say it was easy,” he protested, laughingly.

Kero laughed with him. “I should confess, then. I make jewelry. Actually, I carve gemstones. Now that is a portable hobby.

“I used to write bad poetry.”

She glared at him.

“I stopped.”

Another moment I found hilarious was when Kero reveals that she doesn’t much appreciate Bards, who wrote a song about her after she saved her sister-in-law. For twenty years, that song has haunted her:

And as soon as your villagers would find that out [that I was the Kerowyn of the famous song], I’d wind up having to listen to whatever unholy rendition of it someone had come up with in this village. . . . You should have had to sit through some of those performances. . . The Revenie Temple children’s choir, the oldest fart in Thornton accompanying himself on hurdy-gurdy, a pair of religious sopranos who seemed to think the thing was a dialogue between the Crone and Maiden — at least a dozen would-be Bards with out-of-tune harps. Minstrels. I’d like to strangle the entire breed.

While there is a magical wonder surrounding tales of heralds, bards, and healers, Kerowyn wipes all that away with practicality and logic — and makes me laugh as she does so!

I loved By the Sword, felt very at home with the women in the pages — Kerowyn, Tarma, Kethry, Shallan, Selenay, Talia — and wanted to be part of their kind.

Have you written a post about By the Sword? Add it to the linky to enter our giveaway!

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10 comments

    • You should definitely read it! This stand-alone novel, along with the VOWS AND HONORS books in which we meet Tarma and Kethry, are often the ones Valdemar fans point out as their favorite of the whole series. You can read By the Sword without reading VOWS AND HONOR, which is nice. If you’ve read Talia’s and Vanyel’s stories, you’ll not be lost at all.

  1. Wonderful review, Melanie! I really appreciate how you dig into the feminism. While I consciously recognized this is a feminist novel (more so than the previous ones, amazingly), in reading By the Sword I definitely took my modern sensibilities for granted. This book was published in 1991, and while it’s not like this is pre-feminist revolution, people definitely were not talking about equal pay everywhere. I found myself nodding along with almost everything Kerowyn did, said, and thought. But I took it for granted that these modern issues are so prevalent. I wonder… will this book seem dated eventually? I hope so. “Equal pay? Pft, that’s something we got in the 2020s!” XD

    I did notice that Geyr was often described based on his skin tone. I thought this was EXTRA weird because I have always assumed the Shin’a’in people were similar to the Cheyenne or Lakota tribes; like Plains Indians. In my head, they all have the physical features of Native Americans. But I don’t think Lackey ever describes them as such. Is everyone white? Except for Geyr?

    Either way. I love him. He’s a wonderful character. And I hope we get to learn more about his native lands and their wonderful doggos!

    • Those dogs were so cool! When that last one came zipping through the crowd, scaring Companions and humans alike, I dind’t know what it was at first. Then the dog landed in Kerowyn’s arms (which is a funny thing unto itself) with the good news.

      I also picture the Tayledras as Native American, though I know they have silver hair and crystal blue eyes. Typically in fantasy, everyone is white unless the author wants to “other” the person, usually to indicate a bad guy, but making them darker skinned.

      • Jackie, I loved your comment. Equal pay is one of the issues I work on, and there are days when I don’t think it will ever happen in my state. I really hope we’ll get to say it’s something we got for everyone in the 2020s!

        Melanie, your posts are getting me closer to reading Mercedes Lackey’s books. I’ve never read any of them. I’m reluctant to pick up novels that describe non-white characters the way Lackey has, but I am fascinated by the feminist elements you’ve highlighted.

        • The poor description of a black man was the first I’ve seen. Largely, Lackey doesn’t describe skin color, which may not be much better (because in fantasy, like baby bucks, the default is unfairly white). There are clans in the novels based on certain native American tribes, but I still don’t see much in the way of skin description. It’s largely hair and eyes.

      • Well, yes. Native American with silver hair and blue eyes. But that’s all explained away with node magic. I’m just sayin’. 😉

        Hm. I guess I read a lot of modern fantasy, then. For example, in Brandon Sanderson’s series The Reckoners there are only three white characters out of the 8 central protagonists. And most of the ancillary characters are people of color, too. When I first read about Rethwellan in Arrows of the Queen, I definitely thought they were all of an Indian Sub-Continent influence for some reason. Now that we’ve read By the Sword, well, I don’t think that any longer. It’s weird what the brain does.

        • I assumed that the people in Karse were some variation on African because so many fantasy authors use African features to mean “bad.” However, Alberich is from Karse, and he isn’t described the way I’m picturing. Maybe I just need to hold my horses and stop making assumptions.

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