More on “Sword and Flower”

Jeffro has an interesting post up on the Castalia blog where the pulp guys discuss my “Sword and Flower” review. It more or less stands for itself, but I want to respond to a few points.

Disclaimer: If this sounds harsh, it’s only because I’m being direct. I’m not angry or anything. I’m just trying to cut to the heart of it here. At any rate, I’m hardly more harsh than they are towards me (which I have no problem with).

Its story beats are only a surprise because they haven’t been seen in decades and/or the vast majority of culture creators are constitutionally unable to do them with a straight face.

So? When did I ever deny that? For that manner, when did I mention my surprise or lack of it one way or another?

This thing with “the story is crying out for a redemption arc” bit. I have no idea what that is about. I mean the point of a pulp story is to have somebody punch evil and kiss the girl, right?

Well, in my original review I said that my big problem with the story is that the characters don’t act like people. And they don’t.

The redemption arc is an attempt to solve that problem by giving the characters motivations beyond “survive”. And it’s a superversive motivation that is even suggested by the setting. You can have a more pedestrian motivation that can work perfectly well too, but it would at least be shooting for a lower mark.

Star Wars didn’t have a redemption thingy in the first movie.

“Sword and Flower” isn’t “Star Wars”.

Even if you grant that whatever Anthony is talking about is essential, I just don’t see why you’d absolutely have to have it in the first installment.

It’s not essential. Characters acting like humans? That’s essential.

Still, if the Daredevil television show is more supeversive than Rawle’s story… then I don’t know what superversive is anymore. I just have no idea what they’re talking about!

This is correct. He doesn’t.

“Sword and Flower” never tries to look beyond itself. Sure, it’s set in lesser Heaven. Sure, the protagonist fights demons. But everything is motivated by self-interest; either that, or none of it makes any sense. Dimity admits several times that she doesn’t try to escape because that would be even more dangerous than staying. She fights the demons because she has a stake in it just as much as the Puritans; she says herself that she’s doing it to “never have to worry about rejection from Weatherford again”; they’ve been trying to kill her the whole novel, after all. Jeffro even ADMITS outright that Rawle isn’t shooting for superversive:

I mean the point of a pulp story is to have somebody punch evil and kiss the girl, right?

Right. That wasn’t the point of Daredevil. It was far more than that. It’s about a deeply flawed and weak human being who overcomes all of that to be a hero. “Sword and Flower” may try for this (and I give Rawle credit for that!), but with cardboard cutout characters that don’t act like real humans and have thin motivations, it just doesn’t work.

Remember, my original review didn’t mention lack of superversive as the main flaw. It mentioned lack of realistic or interesting characters, with the exception of the (briefly appearing) Elizabeth. Plus the egregious oversight of mentioning the dead Elizabeth but not the team of dead warriors at the end of the story.

Later on:

P. Alexander: Usually when a Japanese show is about redemption, the [stuff] went down prior to the start of the story, and the whole show is about trying to make up for whatever the hero failed at, which may be shown in a series of flashbacks.

It’s too bad I didn’t mention a specific character who could literally have that exact arc.

Oh, wait, I did. Mash.

 And, there is a redemption bit. I’m not sure how fighting demons can be seen as anything other than an act seeking redemption for people condemned to a lesser heaven.

Survival? Dimity doesn’t seem particularly concerned with being a demon hunter until Mash convinces her, and Mash convinces her because the demons are threatening their town. There isn’t a hint of redemption there.

And, this continual comparison of short works to full novels or even whole seasons of a tv show just isn’t a fair comparison as to how much can be achieved in a given space.

All right. Then don’t bring that up to me when asking for a specific comparison.

As for “The Wish List”, it’s not very long. It’s also much better, and very pulpy itself. Seriously. Read it. Not to sound like too much of a jerk here, but it’s MUCH better than “Sword and Flower”.

P. Alexander: From now on, I’m gonna read “Not Superversive enough” as “Literal Santa Claus didn’t show up to hand out plot items.”

I’ll leave you all to judge whether or not this is a fair reading. For my part, since I never mentioned anything remotely like that, it just comes off to me as as ridiculous a strawman as anything I’ve seen so far. Come on, man. do better.

Nathan Housley: The funny thing is I can see Jagi Lamplighter recognizing Sword & Flower as a different type of superversive than Anthony is trying to make it. (Anthony is misreading genre and beats here. Sword & Flower is not the type of story he wants it to be.)

Yes, the type of story with characters that act like people.

“Sword and Flower” might try, but it tries in the same way “Suicide Squad” tried to be superversive: When your writing isn’t up to snuff, you’re inevitably not going to hit that mark as well as you should. Rawle tries, but there’s a noumenal level there he misses; perhaps he can hit it in his next book. Or maybe he doesn’t go superversive at all, and just improves generally.

I really want to emphasize here that the bigger issue is the characters. They just don’t work.

Like symbolism, it exists, but in recognition, it usually reveals more about the what the reviewer sees in the text than the text itself. And when fundamentally and intentionally subversive works are held up as superversive, it makes me wonder if superversive is not short for “I like it.”

I will note that this is the exact issue the superversives had had with the pulp rev all along, and now you’re going to pull that same thing on us? Seriously? Without batting an eye or seeing a hint of irony there?

Look, if you think we’re calling subversive work superversive, then yeah, you disagree with us that the work is superversive. It happens; we don’t always agree on everything.

With that said, Nathan is also just wrong. We DO, in fact, have guidelines for what makes a story at least noumenally superversive. Here it is. And here’s why Daredevil meets those guidlines, by the way. If you want to know what makes a story “simple” superversive, you can always read Tom Simon’s original essay.

Jeffro: It’s the first time in years that you see a female character (a) operating in a helper role and (b) not surrounded by a Greek chorus of cheerleaders. It’s astonishing. The fact that she did something “wrong” in order to do something right… the fact that she puts herself at odds with society to do the right thing… that makes her instantly likable in a way that no characters on Iron Fist or Jessica Jones ever achieve.

No argument there. Elizabeth was great.

Jon Mollison: The Superversives want to remind people to do the right thing by having literal angels show up in their stories. I want my stories to remind people to do the right thing.

Full stop. You don’t need angels.

Wait. Were you even taking part of the same conversation? My original example was Daredevil.

Hey, remember that scene from “Daredevil” where the literal angel shows up to help Daredevil?


Me either.

Look, I respect the pulp rev guys. We won’t agree on everything. That’s okay! But when they directly contradict themselves (how can you possibly say my idea of superversive has to do with “literal angels” showing up or “Santa Claus bringing presents” when earlier in the same conversation you’re complaining that you don’t see how Daredevil is more superversive than “Sword and Flower”?) to accuse us of things that nobody has even hinted at (where on earth did any of us hint that “Santa Claus had to being presents” for a work to be superversive? How do you even get that reading?), I don’t think it’s unfair for me to call them out on it.

Rawle has potential. He can improve. But “Sword and Flower” wasn’t good because his characters didn’t act like real people, or were two-dimensional cut-outs; the problem could have been solved by giving them stronger character arcs and goals, and a powerful one, hinted at by the setting, even, is a redemption arc.

That was my case.

You should read the work; a lot of people are disagreeing with me, after all. Let it speak for itself, and decide whether I’m totally off the mark or whether I have a point. Who knows? Maybe it really is JUST me.

And also, read “The Wish List”. I’ll have to do a write-up on that one day.


  • cirsova

    My first comment was just a general note of fact; the bit about Santa is just me being a shithead because Narnia seems to be the go-to gold standard for many folks in the Superversive movement and I thought it was lame, even as a kid (plus, is not really a good example if character development and arcs are particularly important to you).

    I actually agree with a lot of your criticisms in your first review. Your second review seems off-base, though, because making it more Superversive, which seemed to be your primary conclusion there, fails to address the legitimate criticism you leveled at it in your initial review.

    • Bellomy

      My first comment was just a general note of fact; the bit about Santa is just me being a shithead because Narnia seems to be the go-to gold standard for many folks in the Superversive movement and I thought it was lame, even as a kid (plus, is not really a good example if character development and arcs are particularly important to you).

      Booooo; but no accounting for taste. 😉

      That does make more sense though, thanks for clarifying.

      Your second review seems off-base, though, because making it more Superversive, which seemed to be your primary conclusion there, fails to address the legitimate criticism you leveled at it in your initial review.

      Mostly it’s that the character arc I outlined – hinted at by the setting – provides proper context for the characters work in, and gives them a reason to do the things they do – a superversive one.

      I said that the big problem is that it wasn’t superversive, but it’s probably a little more accurate to say that the big problem is the lack of believable characters, a problem that could be fixed with a superversive character arc that would put the story over the top.

      But that’s not as pithy.

      • cirsova

        My short thoughts on Sword and Flower:
        -I’m not big on the folks fighting demons thing; monsters or unnatural creatures they think are demons makes more sense to me from a cosmological perspective, but that’s a settings preference.
        -I liked Elizabeth and would’ve liked to have seen more done with her; yes, the foundations for the differentiation of Mash and the other Puritans was there, but I think more could’ve been done with it.
        -I’m not big into Ki-blast stuff. I think a non-ki powered version of Dimity would be an interesting character. The Villain’s motivation seems strangely unclear despite telegraphing his villainy early on, and it hinges on Dimity being a Ki-blaster (if I recall; it’s been a bit).
        -There’s more potential for culture shock than was explored; Dimity and the Puritans would’ve been beyond aliens to one another, with or without Ki stuff.

        So, yeah, like I said, I think you had a lot of valid criticisms, and even those that just come to a matter of personal taste are probably similar. My only “beef”, I would say, is that “needs to be more superversive” is about as useful at addressing those as saying “needs to be more pulpy”.

        Now, at this point, I will disclose that I did help Rawle get it formatted for print for a token payment (because I’m trying to get everybody who’s doing stuff to offer print versions), so I’ve avoided going out of my way to talk it up or down. I mostly weighed in because I thought it odd that one review seemed so on-base while the other seemed so off-base; and I feel it has to do with the critical lens you used in the latter.

        • Bellomy

          My only “beef”, I would say, is that “needs to be more superversive” is about as useful at addressing those as saying “needs to be more pulpy”.

          Oh, come on. That’s hardly fair. I wrote a whole article on what I meant, which was roundly dismissed.

          • cirsova

            Y’know what? That’s fair. I’ll cop to that. The whole superversive push is something that makes me roll my eyes sometimes, mostly because I really dislike a lot of the flagship example works used to illustrate what the Superversives are talking about, but that’s on me. You do offer some legitimate solutions there, even if I would’ve offered different solutions.

          • Mrs. Wright

            No kind of fiction is for everybody. I don’t think anyone has to like anything that does not vall to them.

            That being said, if Anthony is asked to look at a work from a Superversive point of view, whether one likes Superversive stories or not becomes a mute point… in the same way that if one was to ask “how does this hold up as pulp?” 0r ‘does this story make a good romance?”, it twoul not make sense to discuss whether or not pulp or ro!ance was your cup of tea within the confines of the evaluation.

        • Bellomy

          Look at the first review as “Here’s what was wrong” and the latter as “Here’s how I would have solved the problem.”

          I quite obviously did NOT just say “I’d make it more superversive”. I outlined a potential solution to a serious problem that made the narrative more superversive. You can’t just ignore that.

    • Jon M

      Yep. I was speaking far more generally than this one spat as well. Also note that I like literal angels and think we need more of them in our fiction. It’s an observation, not a complaint.

      • Bellomy


        Look, Jeffro asked me if there was any specifically superversive perspective I could tackle the story from. I thought about it, and came up with the redemption angle, which was hinted at in the narrative anyway.

        As I said below, the final conclusion of my second article was a simplistic one; it’s more precise to claim that I saw a redemption arc as a potential superversive solution to the larger problem of the lack of believable, motivated characters.

        Like Mash. Mash is dull. My proposed solution would have been powerful, would have made him interesting, AND would have made his actions more believable.

        Ditto Dimity with the money thing. If we establish that Dimity is materialistic and greedy enough to ignore obvious signs of a scam and brush off her friends, that creates a character arc for her later, and makes her more interesting and her actions more believable.

  • Mrs. Wright

    Question….does the book have any character arc? Redemptive or otherwise?

    • Bellomy

      It might be hinted at very, very subtly, but I don’t think so. If anything the nameless townspeople have a character arc. I suppose you could argue that Dimity’s character arc is learning not to hate the Puritans, but that seems pretty weak.

      Nothing motivates Dimity but self-interest. She even couches helping the people of Weatherford in “What does it do for me?” terms. That’s one of the problems.

      • Mrs. Wright

        I have noticed that this issue–no obvious character arc–is the case in most manuscripts I receive. Usually, the arc is there…but the author has worked it out as they went along, so they did not indicate at the beginning what is necessary to follow the arc.

        So what happens is that some readers pick up on it/read into it and see the progress which the author intended and other readers don’t.

        I’m not saying that is what is going on here. I have not read this book yet. But it could be.

        • Bellomy

          You’re almost certainly right (and diagnosed a very similar problem in the “Tales” manuscript).