Well, I said when putting online the Books session, that there was a book I was about to finish reading and just HAD to talk you about.
Guess what, I finished it, and boy am I… baffled. I knew right from the start that it was a weird book I had before me, and just as I suspected, it turned out to be one of THOSE books. The ones they just don’t (and can’t) write anymore.
And here’s just about why!
The english title for the book is “Wielding a Red Sword”, by Piers Anthony, first published in September 12, 1986, a time in which fantasy literature was very evidently different from what it has become today, at least niche fantasy like this one. A number of those differences is actually what i find endearing and attractive in reading old fantasy, and the reason why in the end I loved reading this particular book. I say “in the end” because there’s no denying “Wielding a Red Sword” has flaws, and big ones as well. The style of writing, though fascinating sometimes, seems hurried in many occasions, the story’s pacing… well, it hurts, at times.
The ending it’s kinda… there, not exactly doing justice to the incredibly meaningful things that are supposed to be happening. Many many times it feels like the story is in a sort of autoscrolling mode, so that the plot often just goes on on its own without real obstacles to overcome for the protagonist, and whene there are ones, it feels a bit didascalic in their description. An impression one could have is that “Wielding a Red Sword” is actually a synopsis of its own story in many parts.
Put really simply, I think only people who are really interested in the subject matter and are unprejudiced enough towards it will have the patience to endure until the end of the novel. Thankfully, that’s where I come in.
I bought the book in one of those rather obscure bookshops in which you find rare and misrepresented little gems at a stupidly cheap price, as well as the Necronomicon, maybe. I was fascinated by the idea of a novel mixing ancient India with Western religions and myths, and Mym, the rebel son of a rajah, deciding to refuse a combined marriage with a woman he didn’t love, wield the Red Sword and become the incarnation of War itself. He then would try to use its power for justice, only to discover that all wars are actually guided in some way by the Devil, wanting to win more and more souls for himself. Mym would then have no choice to descend into Hell itself and (get this) organize the UPRISING of the damned against Satan. All of that crazyness is not even a spoiler, it’s actually printed on the back cover.
With a teaser like that and for a price of just 2 Euros (a little less than 3 dollars when I bought it), you can guess i GOT to buy it. And it was only then that the actual weirdness began.
I’ll TRY avoid spoiling too much of the plot, even if don’t think a lot of people would read it or even FIND it, for what matters. Oh, and apparently it’s the fourth in a series of eight, but nobody told me before, and who even cares at this point?
Remember when I told you the book was set in ancient India? Yeah, well, that’s what I thought given the premises, and what I kept on thinking as the novel opens on a wandering circus sporting an exotic dancer performing a fake devouring by a python, an actual siren with fins and all, and a freaking DRAGON in a cage. Then english speakers started to pop out and our newly introduced protagonist Mym met Orb Kaftan, the delicate but strong Irish beauty with probaly the least feminine name ever, and I thought “Well, ok, it seems we are more or less in the Nineteenth Century, colonial India. Well, that’s good, though I wonder how apparently dragons don’t phase anyone in this age.”
Then, I kept on reading following Mym, a runaway prince mocked for his stuttering, who learns to overcome its handicap by singing his sentences, and it’s also able to enter and exit a berserker state at will, because apparently Indian nobles can do that. He obviously falls in love with the strong independent Orb, who’s searching the world for the mystical song known as the Llano, and is loved back, and all is well and good until Mym is reached by the news that his brother is dead, and now he has to take the throne and marry a princess. His father only let him go because he had a more suitable heir ready, but now there’s no joking anymore, and Mym has to leave Orb and come back. We’re not even at the beginning of the actual plot, mind you.
So, Mym gets dragged back to his father’s royal palace, and is forced to have sex with concubines to forget Orb (as you do), which he doesn’t because obviouly he doesn’t, I mean what kind of hero does that? Oh, also obviously he does have sex with them, but to prevent his father from beheading them as a means of pressure towards the sensitive Mym, so.. still a good person. Then, his father comes to the very last resort: sending Mym and his new fiancée who goes, oddly enough, by the name of Rapture, to the legendary Honeymoon Palace.
If he can resist for a month there with Rapture without changing his mind, the marriage will be cancelled. Only that this is where the book gets probably unwritable for today’s standards audience. You see, the Honeymoon Palace has an absurdly strong magic in it, which makes it inhabitable only by a couple, and by various (and hilarious) means it forces them to share everything, from mundane tasks to operate everyday objects, to even their every intimate feeling and thought. I mean, there’s even a freaking demon that appears to torment the couple if they dare to sleep separately. In this absurd situation, it’s pretty obvious that you either murder the other person, or fall in love with them, and guess what happens?
Well, an absurd scene of attempted suicide by Rapture, which transitions to a telepathic Michael Bay-ish mindbattle within berserkers and ends as a sex scene. That’s what happens. No kidding.
After all this madness, Mym and Rapture prepare their happy marriage, and go around as ambassadors to America… on a commercial flight. And Rapture is amazed by color television.
And I’m left to wonder: when the F**K did this book care to inform me that it was probably set around the 1950s, if not the ’60s? And that apparently in that period no one in the world was phased by indians using GRIFFONS in their local armies, or magic carpet transportation and similar s**t? I mean, my father vacationed there less than 30 years after the book’s event, you’d think he would have noticed.
But I got carried away: after that, political conjunctures make Mym’s father change his mind yet again and he tries to arrange a second combined marriage. It’s at this point that, after some other shenanigans, Mym finally snaps and gets chosen to become Mars, the Incarnation of War and the actual plot of his fight against Satan to get rid of unjust wars actually begins.
Past this point, the plot goes on, mindf**k after mindf**k, as we learn what it means to become Mars and wield the title’s Red Sword. We witness Mym interacting with the other Incarnations and trying to resist to Satan’s misguiding advice as he sneaks a seductive demoness into Mym’s house to open cracks in marriage with Rapture. We also see Satan attempting to sneak more and more forbidden and horrible weapons in mankind’s warfare, things like time-stopping bombs, gene-selective bioweapons (FOXDIE, anyone?) and, I kid you not, freakin’ cocaine zombies. In the end, as anticipated, Mym is forced to descend to Hell itself, and in order to escape and save yet another princess he has to organize the aforementioned uprising of the damned, until… well, no spoilers of that.
So… besides a plot that is adorably nuts, what exactly is the matter with “Wielding a Red Sword”? Why did I say it would be “unwritable” today? In my opinion, there are essentially three big issues at play.
The first is the sexism issue: there’s absolutely no denying that “Wielding a Red Sword” is written by a male for male readers, which alone is a big problem for an age in which we had to randomly add female characters to The Hobbit and The Jungle Book and don’t lose a single chance to flame on gender equality. Furthermore, the main character shows in a number of occasions that he is perfectly ok with the idea that a man should have multiple women, but not with the opposite. It doesn’t help that sometimes I wasn’t sure what the author actually thought of that.
Then, he openly admits choosing Rapture over Orb just because Rapture was more dependent from him, and although men may say or even believe they want to love a strong, independent woman, they actually want their woman to depend on them. I mean, this is so prominent for him, that Lilia (the demoness sent by Satan to sway Mym) it’s actually unable to ruin the marriage by seducing Mym and instead effectively cracks it by teaching Rapture feminism and American slang, which profoundly bothers Mym. Besides, after Rapture leaves him for a young American, Mym keeps resisting Lilia remarking he needs a dependent woman of the right social status.
Sure, we should put into perspective the fact that he is often actually quite ahead of his time for the kind of society he seems to have grown in, in terms of respect and attitude towards women, and doesn’t even tries to stop Rapture from leaving, though he sometimes gave her orders before. The dependency issue alone would be a profound and interesting debate subject, but somehow I get the impression that a widespread coverage of the novel would bring Mym under a lot of attack.
Actually, judging from the reception of the various Fifty Shades and the likes, I think treating women like meat would actually benefit Mym, at least with a certain audience. Instead, his being neither an equality champion nor a sexist a**hole with some sort of “villainous” charm, could very well make him “not marketable” as a character.
Aside from Mym, there’s a somewhat weird issue I previously hinted at when talking of the novel’s flaws. One way I could phrase it is this: the “accepted bad writing” changes over time. What I mean by that is that mainstream fictional literature from any given context, be it nation or year, tends to have some common traits and common flaws, linked to the mainstream taste of the moment. A lot of even heavily flawed works of art can be “allowed” mainstream popularity by just aligning themselves with the current tide, and drifting along. But as the tide recedes, whatever was good enough or below is washed away.
This kind of problem is actually what defines a classic, as a work that is capable to stay good for a long time, outliving the mainstream taste in which it was created, and even becoming more enjoyable as time goes on. Sadly, “Wielding a Red Sword” can’t boast this kind of adaptability: the tide that carried it is long gone from the shore.
Unlike many other works of that kind, though, “Wielding a Red Sword” feels like it was written from the heart. It’s not at all an “industrialized book” written to be marketable, it’s more a fantasy of the author about its phylosophical views, pubblished more or less as he thought it up, hasty and naive in places, but fascinating in others.
Piers Anthony’s work was a book for its time: as the dinosaurs, it was hyperspecialized and so, sadly, doomed to extinction. It’s a little rough gem with some jagged cracks, a kind I personally find endearing. It was never a spectacular book, even for when it was written, but it came from a context that has since died.
A time in which you could have a stuttering slightly sexist prince as a demigod-like fantasy hero, who faces Satan with the teachings of Mushashi Miyamoto (once more, I’m not kidding) and goes after damsells in distress. In which the author somehow manages to talk about sex every other page with elegant humour rather than voyeuristically and then follow up with some of the most bizarre religious syncretism ever. A time in which one page has zombies, the next is a discussion on the nature of time, then we’re talking emancipation and divorce, and then an harpy called Lady Mac Beth yells at poor Mym to “suck it!!”.
At the time, fantasy was less mainstream and more unpolished: naive storytelling mixed with profound themes in the weirdest of ways, producing really bizzare and head-scratching results. I don’t know exactly what is it that I love about that. Maybe it’s the beauty of sincere imperfection. Maybe it’s the fact that I know that sensibilities changed, and book like this one become rare gems from the past.
Or maybe, just maybe, I was simply born in the wrong decade. Wouldn’t be the first time I feel like that. It wasn’t even my time, and perhaps I’ll never truly understand it.
Yet sometimes, somehow, I feel like I miss it.