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WesternSFA


The Sword of Happenstance
by Steven Brust and Skylar White
Foxfire Publishing, $12.99 QPB, 278 p.
Published: March 2021

This is the fantasy novel I have been looking forward to ever since I heard Brust and Whyte read aloud, with wonderful vocal expressiveness, the first few chapters at Worldcon in San Antonio. We in the audience were captivated, riveted, delighted; the reading was so popular it extended well beyond the allotted 30 minutes; we all just moved to another room and they kept on reading. At a great convention, that reading was one of the high points. (Another highlight was hearing, for the first time, Ada Palmer and the full cast of Sassafrass perform Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok.)

In The Sword of Happenstance, a boy called Cutterson is sent on an errand to the local blacksmith. He winds up not with a mended kettle but a sword, one potent in magic, designed to cut clear the wielder's destiny- whoever the wielder is. The sword was intended by some for the rightful heir of the kingdom, by others for the usurper who intends to consolidate and render irrevocable his hold on power and his grip on the minds of the kingdom's subjects; but by happenstance, the first two to hold the sword are Cutterson and a Dothquil. a young scullery maid who is intent on becoming a witch. Cutterson is largely clueless, Dothquil determined; and ironically, each has the aptitudes the other one either wishes for or is expected to possess.

As is usual during a tyrant's reign, the ones who support the false ruler either profit by their service or are too cowed, or too beguiled, to remember that there ever was a better way of ruling a kingdom. It is the ones who do remember, even dimly, and the ones who yearn for something their heart knows can be real even when every aspect of their life seems to conspire against them, who have the chance of altering reality and setting a new course.

Archetypally, it is perhaps both sad and significant that father figures are so absent from the tale, but heartening that they are so essential in the framework of the telling. All the main characters' fathers are dead or absent; the father substitutes are deceptive. But the heroes - and there are more than the two mentioned - grow into adults who become fine parents. As for mother archetypes, they are vividly present, in some of their more unpleasant aspects, or as occluded brightness. In this way, the story presents the opposite but equally weighted problems of parents who are absent and parents who are maratre, unkind; and also depicts parents who mean well but are shadowed and hobbled by the violence a tyrant inflicts.

One aspect of the story merits special mention: gender fluidity. All the characters, even the villains, have the kind of complexity that defies pigeonholing. That one of them is gender ambiguous/fluid means he/she is struggling with terrifying questions: How can I be who I am? Can I become who I wish to be? Can I love and be loved by and accepted by the people I care about? For this character, the waters seem terribly uncharted.  Yet, while the answers take very different forms for each character, the assailing questions and the answering quest for joy is selfsame.  And because the protagonists are heroes, they understand this. 

The book's cover art is wonderfully evocative, reminiscent of Into the Woods and the archetypal sword in the stone, but now the stone is in the sword. Also, since the story has two narrators, an appropriately shaped sword-in-hand signals each transition in narrator/POV. Brust and White had already collaborated on The Incrementalists; their marriage of minds makes them perfect for a shared narrative.

One of the puzzles that runs throughout the story is why the sword seems to be two-edged to Cutterson and one-edged to Dothquil. Yes, magic is involved, but why does paradox extend itself to this form? I am happy to say that the authors allow the characters to explain the mystery a bit, near the very end. After all, they are telling the story of their adventures to children who are asking the best questions: Why? How?

The paradox of the sword's nature and form is carried through the paradox of the nature of the narrative: how do two superb writers tell a story that speaks to adults and young adults/children simultaneously? Well, other artists have worked that magic in the past: the Warner Borthers' team who made the Bugs Bunny and Merry Melodies cartoons certainly figured it out; parents who read aloud The Just So Stories, Peter Pan, and A Wizard of Earthsea enjoy the stories in different ways but just as thoroughly as the avid young listeners. The best stories mature along with the reader. I've read this story three times now, and each time I love it more - Chris Wozney

For more titles by Steven Brust click here

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