My rating: 1 of 5 stars
NOTE: Spoilers below. Proceed with caution.
Tropes. Tropes Everywhere.
Sword Bearer by Teddy Jacobs is a relatively short, YA Fantasy that I picked up for free about two years ago. I liked its premise and thought it was a fairly classic set-up: young noble boy feels trapped in his life and wants to break free of it only to find himself involved in something much bigger. Even in the book’s back blurb, the protagonist, Anders Thomason, acknowledges that this is how the classic fantasy adventure worked:
You swing a staff until you’re ready to swing a sword. Then you go on all kinds of adventures – fighting monsters, casting spells and saving damsels in distress. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work, but I didn’t believe a word of it.
And it was this level self-awareness about fantasy conventions and genre limitations that intrigued me. I thought it was going to be a kind of meta-genre story that poked fun at the fantasy tropes.
But it wasn’t. It wasn’t that at all.
Instead, it felt like I was wading through a swamp of tropes.
What I Thought Worked Well
The story takes place in a sort of fictional Germany-Italy-Europe, which I thought was interesting, but I thought the most interesting part of the setting was having an enchanted sword be able to cut like a normal sword by using “words of power” and fairies that stayed inside the sword itself. For me, in addition to roasting magical nuts and consuming them for a kind of quick pick-me-up, those things made the magic system a lot more unique than most I’ve encountered.
Sadly, the setting/world-building magical systems were some of the only unique things about this book.
What I Thought Didn’t Work Well
Characters, Plot, Style, and Theme
Anders is your typical, awkward teenage protagonist with noble heritage — a bit on the chubby side and with pimples all over his face. He trains with his swordmaster, Giancarlo, and on his sixteenth birthday during the opening scene, he inherits his grandfather’s wooden-yet-magical sword.
Then his life completely changes when a magical portal opens in his room, and he meets the “intoxicating,” “beautiful” Kriek girl with “perfect skin” named Kara, who has stolen a book back for her people.
Then the two of them get out of the castle and escape the evil Gergard, who hadn’t gotten a mention until that moment, and run away from the dark boars chasing after them.
Then Anders discovers that he is not just a prince, but a prince of multiple heritages.
Then Anders discovers that he has an evil uncle that’s behind everything.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Do you see where the story is going because of all these tropes? And do you see why I would be frustrated with a story that seems to promise the tropes will be challenged, but doesn’t?
There are some instances of disbelief in Anders. When the portal opens up, he wonders if it’s the incense or the tea in his room that’s causing him to hallucinate. But hardly anything else changes about him. And what little character development there is barely scratches the story’s surface, because even the writing style and theme appear to struggle with carrying the story as well.
Somehow I think the song the sword was singing was the song of my blood. My body moved with the song.
When Anders first gets a taste of his newfound powers, he is a little unsure of what is happening. And as an awkward teenager, I’m okay that he’s unsure of what’s happening, saying “Somehow” and “I think.” But when this hedging occurs even in the latter part of the novel, I start to wonder if the character has changed: “My stomach grumbled. In any case, I was hungry.” I know you’re hungry from your stomach growling, Anders. You don’t have to restate it or hedge it.
I don’t mind beautiful romantic interests or evil uncles or pimply protagonists. But what I do mind is when tropes are expected to do the work of the story that the story itself is supposed to do. I don’t mind if certain characters are bewitching, but I do mind if they are only bewitching and barely have a life outside helping the protagonist.
The edition of Sword Bearer I reviewed came out in 2012, and before writing this review, I discovered that there was a second edition that was published in 2015. Perhaps some of the things in this edition were revised out of the second, but either way, I will not be looking to read this book again or its sequel.