Sword and Flower: A Superversive Perspective

In the comments of my review of Rawle Nyanzi’s “Sword and Flower”, Jeffro Johnson asked me this:

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…?

A good question! After some thought, yes, I think there was an element of superversion “missing”, so to speak. I don’t think Rawle took advantage enough of his concept.

I’ll explain.

“Sword and Flower” is a book about dead people. Literally – the protagonists are all in the “Lesser Heaven”, a place where those who died sudden and violent deaths live out a sort of second life so they can get the fair shot they were robbed of to reach Heaven. Thus, everybody in it is, for all intents and purposes, a ghost.

Specifically here, this is a book about ghosts whose lives were literally cut so short that Heaven decided they didn’t get a fair shake at things.

So, here’s my question for you: What type of a story does this hint at?

This is the set-up for a redemption story. And when done well, a redemption story is perhaps the most powerfully superversive of all.

Let me try to give an example for what could have been done here. There is this book called “The Wish List”, by Eoin Colfer, that I think works pretty well as a comparison piece to “Sword and Flower”.

TWL is an underrated book by Colfer, whose Artemis Fowl series is quite good but sometimes dips it toe in too far in the feminism/environmentalism/gurrrrrrrrl power well. “The Wish List” actually hits a lot of beats in the pulp formula (in fact, Colfer is probably the closest super-popular modern equivalent to a pulp writer). It takes on fantasy from a clearly Christian perspective (in fact, it’s kind of astonishing how unashamedly, 100% Christian it is), it features a clear and powerful good/evil dichotomy, it has dynamic characters who act decisively and face moral dilemmas and, most importantly, it is very, very superversive. Also, unlike the Artemis Fowl series, there really isn’t any sort of feminism in it to speak of, which is nice.

It’s not a perfect book; the Chekhov’s gun used at the end was flashed a little too obviously and a lot of the beats it hit were predictable. But it was all very well executed and the book was fun and heartwarming. I’ll have to remember to do a review of it one day.

I go through all of this to try and show you the parallels. “Sword and Flower” comes at things from a clearly Christian perspective, features a clear good/evil dichotomy, and is about a character who suffers an untimely death at the beginning of the narrative (in fact, both main characters die from explosions!). But “The Wish List” was the far superior book. Why?

“The Wish List” motivated its characters. When Meg Finn reaches the afterlife, she is given a task: Help this man complete his wish list, and you can make it into Heaven. The book turns into a redemption story, as Meg finds that by helping Lowry complete his tasks, she is also atoning for the all of the wrongs she committed in life and learning how to think about people besides herself.

The characters in “Sword and Flower” are – and this will sound odd unless, I think, you’ve read the book – weirdly unmotivated. Dimity is in the Lesser Heaven, but she doesn’t seem to occupy herself with much more than surviving. Mash and the Puritans live normal Puritan lives punctuated with demon fighting. There’s no extra drive there outside of survival and self-preservation.

But the pieces are right there! Dimity gets a second chance in Lesser Heaven. What does this mean for her?

Well, what do second chances ever mean? She needs to atone for something. Maybe she was materialistic, or greedy, or selfish; this can even tie into her leveraging her fame to foolishly accept free money.Now atoning for this needs to drive her actions. What can she do to make up for her sins on earth? What sacrifices will she make? Will she redeem herself? Suddenly Dimity is given a much more powerful character arc.

Ditto Mash. Who is Mash, anyway? Why is he so sympathetic to Dimity and Elizabeth? Well, why is he a part of the Puritans? Maybe he’s so sympathetic because he joined the Puritans intentionally; because he’s ashamed of something he’s done, and believes the strict lifestyle of the Puritans is penance. This makes Mash different, and makes him interesting, and makes it plausible that he would be more interested in defending Dimity than the other Puritans necessarily would be.

I think that this element of redemption – of characters striving to better themselves and the world around them, to atone for their sins, to reach out to the divine – is what would put “Sword and Flower” over the top. The simple A to C story Rawle is telling becomes FAR more powerful when your protagonists have a goal and something motivating what they do.

And it makes it superversive. Redemption stories are about looking past yourself and to something higher and better – if for no other reason than that you want to make yourself higher and better. It means that you recognize a higher moral order that you’ve violated and need to make right.

Jeffro originally brought up “Daredevil”. “Daredevil’s” superversiveness comes from a few places. One is that Daredevil suffers in his fights, and keeps fighting anyway. He doesn’t walk away from fights; he limps, or gets thrown into dumpsters, or is absolutely ripped to shreds. He is beaten down and broken and bloodied like crazy. But he keeps fighting anyway. That’s superversive!

Daredevil remains a human character because he’s still acting like a real person, odd as that sounds. You always know why he does what he does; he’s helping people. He’s saving lives. When a child’s been kidnapped you can understand why Daredevil would allow himself to be beaten half to death if it means rescuing him.

Dimity is never really given the chance to make a decision like that. At the end of the story she does reject a demon’s offer to become an all-powerful god-like creature, but really, he just killed how many people? And implied that he might have raped her? It’s hardly a choice (though I will say that the effort to add in a moment like that is appreciated). Daredevil’s choice is much more powerful: He can walk away, save himself the pain, and nobody would be any the wiser, or really even blame him. But he goes in anyway, because he knows he can make a difference.

So there’s my answer: The lack of character motivation is also a lack of superversion. When characters aren’t motivated, then they’re not striving to improve themselves, and there’s no opportunity to let in something higher or greater. In a Christian cosmology, in a world that’s explicitly designed for people who get a second chance at life, the opportunity for a redemption story is there for the taking. And redemption stories are some of the most superversive of all. This could have been fantastic!

But we never get to see it, and the result feels like finishing a very unsatisfying meal: There’s just something missing…

So we go back to square one: What’s the biggest problem with “Sword and Flower”?

It needs to be more superversive. The story is just begging for it. Hopefully Rawle learns from the experience and is able to give us something more powerful in the future. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.