Wielding a Red Sword
Length: 281 pages, standard paperback page size/font
I'm a bit late with this review because I've been wrapped up in taking care of some personal matters since finishing reading the book, but let's go. In an interesting break from the trend that this series had been showing, this one was actually shorter than the previous entry. In fact, it's the shortest book of the series so far. It also happens to have been the best book of the series so far, too. While I'm not going to say that there's necessarily a link between those two points, since there's still a fair bit of content that treads the line between being auxiliary character development or being trimmable fluff, it was something that jumped out at me when I sat down to write this review and noticed what the page count was.
Anyway, this time around, the book is centered on War. I probably went into it with more interest than I had for any of the previous books (possibly excepting On a Pale Horse), because War was a pretty cool guy in his previous appearances. It seemed like everyone started out hating him when they met him for the first time, but then he'd win them over with his honor and fairness, so I was looking forward to seeing more of who he really was.
So, of course, the guy who actually fills the office of War in this book is the successor of the one who'd shown up in all of the previous ones, thus making this War a completely different character. Lovely.
But I digress. The protagonist of this book is Pride of the Kingdom, a prince from Gujarat. That's kind of an unwieldy name, though, so he adopts the pseudonym Mym near the start and tends to stick with it outside of a few times that he's referred to as Prince Pride. This is facilitated in part by the actual name being ironic, given that the Rajah (and the rest of the royalty, by extension; also, yes, the book does switch between using Indian and European titles for royals) is ashamed of him because he stutters. Thus, to start out, Mym has actually run away from the palace, and while wandering the crowds of some backwater village, he get stricken by a lovely singer and joins the circus troupe that she's a part of. Naturally, since pretty much everything of importance that happens in this series is tied up with the Kaftan family, the singer is Orb Kaftan, daughter of Niobe (the protagonist of With a Tangled Skein).
At the very least, since Orb is an adult at this point, this places the timing of this book more or less in line with the ending of With a Tangled Skein, which is later confirmed when references are made to the previous War having earned Satan's ire by acting as an impartial referee during Niobe's trial at the end of that book.
Because women are by and large the helpless accoutrements of men in this series, Orb has no choice but to fall in love with Mym as they spend more time together. To be fair, though, while it sounds bad when I say it like that, the way that it was written in the book was actually reasonable. Mym plays the part of a decent and good guy who's self-conscious about his stutter, seeing it as something that'd get in the way of any woman finding him attractive, and he ends up winning her over by just being who he is rather than by concerted effort. Were this a stand-alone book rather than part of a series with a history of marginalizing the capacities and agency of female characters, it'd have come off a lot better.
Unfortunately, it's around the same time that Orb teaches Mym to talk in singsong in order to fix his stutter, since singing uses a different part of the brain from speaking normally. While I don't know if this is as much of an instant fix in reality as it is in the book, there is some factual scientific basis for it, and I always love it when authors make use of cool facts like that. The problem with that, though, is that being able to avoid stuttering gets rid of much of Mym's self-consciousness, which starts him down the path towards becoming a pompous ass.
It's a slow transformation, admittedly. First, he's taken away from the circus because his older brother was killed in combat and thus the Rajah of Gujarat sent the military to retrieve him in order to act as the new heir to the throne. Then, in order to set him up in a political marriage with a suitable wife, he's forced to spend a month with Princess Rapture of Malachite from Maharashtra in the Honeymoon Castle, a magical castle that reveals their thoughts to each other (and also sends demons to torment them if they try to spend time apart). Despite their resistances, they do end up falling in love with each other, and this is where the descent into being an ass starts for Mym. See, while Rapture is a good and decent woman in general (along with being incredibly hot, because that's just a given for every young female in this series), the thing that Mym really falls in love with her for is that she's a weakling who needs a man's support in order to hold herself together, once she's stripped of her false bravado by the magic of the castle.
I mean, on the one hand, I kind of get it. Most people like to feel needed and powerful, and being with someone who's dependent on you to save her from physical threats (despite that she's also been trained as a berserker, since that's apparently a thing that all Indian royals do in this setting, and thus should be more than capable of defending herself) and to stop her from trying to commit suicide (which Rapture tries often enough in the early parts of the book that it leaves the impression of that being her default response to tough situations) can indeed have that effect. On the other hand, that's a rather shitty reason to fall in love with someone, if you ask me, because it leaves the feeling that he doesn't really love Rapture herself but rather the idea of having a beautiful and otherwise capable woman who can't make her way through life without him. If it sounds like I'm exaggerating this aspect of their relationship, consider these next two paragraphs.
Just before they're set to be wed formally, Mym and Rapture manage to arrange for peace between Gujarat and Rajasthan, ending the final ongoing war in the world (oh, yes, apparently, the states of India are also regularly at war with each other in this setting). As a reward, Mym and Rapture are arranged to be married to the princess and prince of Rajasthan, respectively, instead of each other, which makes Mym flip out hard enough that he becomes the angriest man in the world, thus earning the approval of the red sword of War, which was just freed from the previous incarnation of War since world peace causes the office-holder to ascend to Heaven. Mym takes the offering and runs off with Rapture to his castle in the sky/Purgatory, but she can't stay there, since their food and drink isn't capable of fulfilling a mortal's needs. Mym is distraught about this, not because of how awful it'd be for Rapture, but because it means that she'll need to be fed by some other source.
When Satan shows up with his Faux Affably Evil routine to start manipulating Mym, he also presents Lilith (who gets changed into a younger aspect called Lila, for whatever reason) as a companion for Rapture so that she won't get lonely while Mym is out for War business. Mym agrees to this at first and then ends up regretting it, not because it means he's indebted to Satan (which he recognizes and dismisses as a concern), not because it means that his wife is spending time alone with a being constructed by the physical embodiment of evil, but because Lila ends up teaching Rapture a bit about occidental female independence (as laughable as the idea is, considering how Anthony wrote about his occidental females in the previous book), which leads to Rapture becoming less dependent on him.
Of course, along the way, there is some expected social commentary on the necessity of war, the use of child soldiers, and so forth, handled with the usual grace that Anthony displays when he does that (which is to say that it sticks out as being contrived and somewhat outside of the book's plot, but it's not "radioactive waste in the DooM comic"-levels of fourth wall breaking).
I could go on about Mym's further degeneration with respect to being a decent and likeable person, but I'll stop there to avoid spoilers, aside from mentioning that the "seeming mischance" that leads to Mym going to Hell (as mentioned in the teaser summary on the back of the book) is also set up by Mym wanting to be with a woman who's entirely dependent on and subservient to him.
On the plus side, this book did go back to having a complete and fulfilling resolution to the climax, similar to On a Pale Horse, as opposed to the shitty endings for Bearing an Hourglass and With a Tangled Skein. Thus, it ended up being fairly enjoyable throughout, since Mym was an enjoyable enough character early on to carry the book while the plot got set up, and then the plot was interesting and enjoyable enough later on to carry the book as Mym became more of a dick.
In something of a wasted opportunity, the book does highlight the fact that the new incarnation of War is a Hindu guy who's being placed in an explicitly Abrahamic framework for the supernatural, but those moments are mostly just done as gags rather than as anything meaningful. While my knowledge of Hindu mythology isn't as developed as my knowledge of Abrahamic mythology, I found the joking about Satan being the Abrahamic version of Shiva to be rather shallow, since to the best of my knowledge, Shiva's instances as a terrifying force of destruction aren't meant to be acts of apocalyptic evil. If anything, I think they'd be more related to War's position as a supervisor of necessary violence, but I digress. The point is that most of the references of Hindu ideology (specifically, comparisons on reincarnation as opposed to an eternal afterlife) and mythology weren't done in any way that felt meaningful, which was something of a disappointment, though perhaps it's for the best than Anthony didn't go into further social commentary on that dynamic.
Despite its shortcomings, though, Wielding a Red Sword was a good book. While Mym's changes through the course of the book could serve as a cautionary tale on the perils of character development, it was fun to read overall. I can't say that I'm looking forward to seeing more of Mym in whatever capacity he shows up in during the rest of the series, but even with my growing distaste for him as this book went on, I still ended up liking him enough on the whole that his presence never became enough of a negative to ruin things. Thus, I can finally give an unqualified recommendation for one of the books in this series.
Length: 281 pages, standard paperback page size/font