REVIEW: “Sword and Flower”, by Rawle Nyanzi

Let me start off with this: I went into this thinking I’d like it.

I went into this hoping I’d like it.

I’d read reviews from people I trust who liked it.

I like Rawle. I certainly have no ax to grind with him. I WANTED to like “Sword and Flower”.

But I couldn’t. It’s just not a very good book.

It’s not terrible. And I certainly think Rawle can and will get better. It’s just…not good.

Forget the prose style. That was fine. I barely noticed it, and it’s the big criticism I’ve seen cropping up.

The problem is the characters, and it’s a big problem. I had two big issues with them. They either,

  1. Had barely two-dimensional personalities, or worse,
  2. Didn’t act like real people at all

Let me give you an example of what I mean (SPOILERS from her on out – you’ve been warned). Our protagonist, Dimity, a Japanese pop star with magical powers that apparently are a common thing in “Sword and Flower” world, has this happen to her:

Someone has hacked into Dimity’s account. She goes to the bank to clear it up.

She learns that the banker is a fan of hers. She has trouble clearing up her money when this happens (this is the banker speaking):

“…I wouldn’t want you to miss your next concert, so I can do something for you: I’ll have the bank give you one million yen for your personal use. It will come with an official letter from the bank so that it can sail through customs with no problems,” Sugihara said. Dimity beamed. “That’s wonderful!” she said. She hadn’t expected free money, but here it was, handed to her on a silver platter.

What? Who reacts like that? Your immediate reaction to being handed ten thosuand dollars (the rough equivalent of a million yen) is never “Free money!” it’s “That sounds completely illegal and doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense.”

Later Dimity’s security is “very suspicious” of the money. This is also unrealistic. Even IF Dimity is naive enough to accept the money, security isn’t going to be “suspicious”, it’s going to tell her not to take the money, since it’s an obvious scam, since banks can’t hand out ten thousand dollars just because.

So let’s move on. Dimity dies in a violent explosion. Her immediate reaction to landing in the afterlife is puzzlement, until she fights a demon monster. An angel of God helps her out.

Dimity doesn’t react like a normal human being. She’s not remotely afraid of the demon monster – again, the demon monster – and, worse, she doesn’t seem even slightly concerned that she’s died.

I compared her reaction to Meg Finn’s in Eoin Colfer’s novel “The Wish List”. Meg also dies in a violent explosion. Her first thought afterward is to assume she woke up in a hospital. When she realizes she died, her reaction is muted, but Colfer specifically mentions that the tunnel to the afterlife has a calming effect on her. Later, when she ends up back on earth as a ghost, she tries to stay calm for awhile but eventually breaks down emotionally; when she gets over this – quickly – she acts decisively for the rest of the novel.

That is how an actual person reacts to dying. Even if Dimity is the sort of person with a strong enough will to not be freaked out at the concept of literally exploding, shouldn’t she at least be upset at not getting to see any of her friends again? Never getting to perform at any more concerts? Heck, fighting demons?

She just…isn’t. She doesn’t come off as particularly brave or strong-willed for this. She comes off as sort of robotic.

One of the things I did like about the novel is the concept of the lesser heaven, a sort of “second chance” world for people who die sudden, violent deaths. It’s an interesting answer to the theological question of how fair it is to judge people who didn’t have a real chance to prepare for their deaths.

Unfortunately, interesting as it is in the concept phase, Rawle doesn’t go very far with it. Lesser Heaven is a lot like earth, but where demons attack and divided in subsections for different cultural groups – including the Puritans, who feature prominently. I wanted to see something more – but with that said, he seemed to be setting up a sequel hook at the end of it and I’m hopeful that things will get more interesting.

Let’s go back to the bigger problems – the characters. After rescuing the Puritans from a demon, Dimity is put on trial for witchcraft for using her magical powers in the fight. She is defended by a swordsman named Mash, and instead of being executed is made a sort of housekeeper for one of he families until her sentence is complete.

Let’s look at Mash. The problem with Mash is that he acts exactly the same as all the other Puritans…except he defends Dimity. Why? There’s a hint that because another character, Elizabeth, healed him earlier from the brink of death with magic he’s more sympathetic to magic, but this doesn’t work; after all, Dimity did save all of their lives earlier thanks to her magic. Mash is dull. He’s another Puritan who inexplicably acts like every other Puritan except when the plot requires him not to.

Moving on. I’ll try to avoid some spoilers. Suffice to say that Dimity and a group of Puritan warriors are now fighting demons in their lair. This scene is all fine. Rawle has some good ideas here – the setting where they fight the demons, a creepy, semi-organic Japanese castle, is very cool. The fight scenes work well enough.

But the people still don’t act like real people. In the attack, all of the Puritan warriors are killed except for Mash and Dimity. This doesn’t even slow them down! Shouldn’t Mash, at least, be briefly upset? Horrified? Disturbed?

But he’s not. He keeps on fighting and moving as if everything is perfectly fine and things are going well. The effect, again, isn’t heroic; it’s robotic.

Okay. They make it through the cool organic castle, and after some fighting and other things – handled fairly well – Dimity and Mash are in a stand off against the villain, the head demon. Elizabeth, the girl who used magic to save Mash’s life earlier, showed up and is killed in the fight. This, for the first time, affects Mash very strongly; it is the first time in the book either him or Dimity (who also reacts, if not as strongly) acts like a real life human to a tragic events. This is good!

But then it’s all cut short by the ending. Again, I don’t want to be overly harsh here…but this is really, really inexcusable. After the defeat of the head demon monster, Dimity and Mash go back to the village. A service and period of mourning is held for Elizabeth…but not for any of the warriors who died.

What?

An entire team of warriors is killed, and this isn’t even worth bringing up again at the end of the novel. It’s never mentioned. Apparently not only do Mash and Dimity not care, but nobody cares. This is such an egregious oversight that I’m still not sure if I’m missing something, but until I find what it is, I really can’t excuse this. It’s the sort of thing that, even if you forgot about when you wrote it, you have to find in a proofread. It’s just too big.

The book ends on an interesting sequel hook. I’ll probably buy the sequel to see how Rawle improves.

Here’s the thing: I know I’m supposed to focus on the pulpy formula, and how it affects and improves the work…but I can’t, because I just did not care about the characters. They weren’t people, they were automatons who reacted the way they did in order to push the plot forward. They didn’t have normal human reactions to events. As a result, even though it’s nice, for once, to have a feminine-ish (it’s hard for me to say feminine when she’s fighting monsters right alongside the male hero) heroine and masculine hero, I didn’t really care because why would I care about these people? They’re not people. They’re robots. With Mash this is even more egregious since he acted exactly the same as the other Puritans anyway! If another Puritan warrior suddenly changed his mind and decided he liked Dimity, we’d have a clone of Mash. I just couldn’t get invested.

That’s not to say it was a total disaster, as bad as all that sounds. The story had a couple of Way Cool ideas. Rawle threw you right into the action, which is good. The writing is competent, the fight scenes effective, and everything moves logically. There were no egregious plot holes (unless, I suppose, you count the massive oversight of the suddenly ignored Puritan warriors). Rawle didn’t embarass himself, in the sense that he wrote a logical work of fiction with competent prose and some cool ideas.

It’s not a poor book, just a mediocre one. What he’s missing are the characters.

The thing is, this is a BIG deal. To overcome unrealistic characters, you need some other hook to draw the reader in and make them overlook that flaw; for example, Asimov’s robot stories weren’t about the characters but about solving the puzzle. “The Three Body Problem” wasn’t about the characters but about the aliens, the mystery surrounding the game, and the protagonist’s weird visions. Rawle just didn’t have a strong enough hook to make me ignore the characters, and for that reason “Sword anf Flower” just didn’t work.

One last thing: When I was asked to describe what I meant by “mediocre”, I thought for a moment then mentioned an early story of mine. Needless to say, I haven’t given up on my own writing, and I haven’t given up on Rawle’s. There is room for improvement here, and I think he can do it. This is not the work of somebody who wasn’t trying. This is the work of somebody who tried and simply fell short of the mark. I look forward to seeing Rawle progress and hopefully start to hit those marks he sets for himself.

The effort is admirable; now let’s see if he can nail the execution.

  • Scott at Castalia

    A million yen is about USD 10k and not unusual for Japanese to carry around that much when going for a big purchase. Yes, unusual for someone to hand someone 10k to use but not in the real of impossibility that the equivalent to a million USD would be.
    Off topic but here is something impossible. This can’t be true but it is: in Japan, they can and do send cash in the mail. Granted this is done with a special envelope but this is done constantly and there is little to no pilferage (don’t try this at home)

    • Bellomy

      Huh! Interesting. Will revise when I’m not at a phone.

  • Okay, I can see you’re bouncing here. Not gonna argue with that!

    What I want to know, though… is how superversive or un-superversive this is in comparison to, say, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, and first season Daredevil on Netflix. Anything strike you as being significant from that angle…?

    • Bellomy

      Good question! Will answer later when I’m not on a phone.