Friday, June 30, 2017

Review: The Bird and the Sword

The Bird and the Sword The Bird and the Sword by Amy Harmon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lot of the best fantasy is ultimately about language. Tolkien began, after all, with his linguistic experiments around the language of the elves and orcs, and the stories grew from there. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy has an entire system of magic around the notion that the world came into being when the first human spoke the true language, and now all magic is the residue of that same speech. And J.K. Rowling makes a big deal about how important it is for her young wizards to pronounce words just-so, to appreciate the power of the individual word.

A lot of powerful feminist literature explores what it means for a woman to lose her voice. Whether it’s something like The Little Mermaid story or The Handmaid’s Tale, we’re called on to interrogate the degree to which women are subjected to control by the removal of their voices, by silencing them.

Amy Harmon marries those two traditions in this gently magical story of a young woman who discovers power, love and a sense of her own desires through the process of recovering the voice taken from her as a child. This is fantasy in the broad sense of the term: it’s a story that invents a new world in order to comment on the one we know. It may not be “high fantasy” in the sense of the endless parade of Tolkien/Martin wanabes, but that’s a good thing. Instead, it’s a story that spins a new mythology from the long tradition of fairy tale.

This is also a story that goes in unexpected places. Lark is a lord’s daughter whose life is overturned when the king discovers that her mother is “gifted,” that she has the power to give “words” that reshape reality. The king has the mother summarily executed, but not before she can level curses upon the king and his son, and she can command her daughter to silence so that she will not suffer the same fate for exercising her power.

To the degree that this book explores the feminist trope, it’s telling that it’s another woman who silences Lark. And she does so not out of jealousy (as another woman attempts to do late in the book) but for her own protection. It’s hard to judge the mother: has she acted wisely to defend her daughter, or is she frightened of this particular female power? I like that the answer isn’t clear, that this is a real novel, not a political tract. It asks a powerful question – how do we accommodate a woman’s power – and then it allows multiple answers to emerge.

Similarly, Lark gets taken hostage years later by the new king, only to discover that her mother’s curse has left him gifted as well. He has the capacity to change into an eagle, but he can’t control the process. As her mother promised, he is losing himself “to the sky.” Again we see the ambivalence of the situation. This power is, in its way, welcome, and the king acknowledges later that he has always dreamed of flying. Yet it also limits him. It’s both a curse and a gift, an experience of the world that makes him more and less likely to tolerate the “gifted” community his father sought to exterminate.

And, at the same time as she’s taken violently, she slowly discovers she loves Tiras. And their romance is rich and rewarding, with a dash of Pride and Prejudice thrown into the battle narrative. You buy that they’re in love for the right reasons, and Lark’s narrating of her growing desire for him is legitimately powerful

We see the dynamic with Lark’s father as well. Early on he’s praised for being a mild, unambitious man, the perfect mate for Lark’s mother who might shine too brightly if she were nearer the throne. Later, he becomes a key player in the chess game to determine who will be named successor to the dying king. He’s Lark’s protector, but he also likes her as silent; he doesn’t want to see her power unleashed.

And to top all of that off, Harmon writes with real skill. Her prose is lyrical and engaging, but it’s never overwrought. It feels like a fairy tale, but it never resolves itself into something as straightforward as that tone would suggest.

I do think there are spots where the action drags (but that might be my fault for getting distracted for days at a time as I read this and therefore coming to it with more gaps of time than I usually do). For a story that comes to depend as much as this does on intrigue, there might be more of a run-up to the political crises in the last few chapters.

All in all, though, Harmon writes so beautifully, and she does so in the service of such legitimate literary questions, that I enjoyed this very much.

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