Sword and Flower, by Rawle Nyanzi, represents a huge load off of my mind. Rawle is one of the earliest adopters of the Pulp Revolution, and for me he represents a chance to get a good, solid assessment of whether this is really the early days of something special or a group of internet blowhards and posers mistaking meaningless trolling for honest analysis and workmanship. Granted, you’ve got successful authors like Brian Niemeier, Karl Gallagher, and Brian K. Lowe, all of whom were doing their thing before the term Pulp Revolution had even been coined. You’ve got magazines like Cirsova pumping out great stuff, too. It’s gratifying to stand side by side with proven quantities like that. But what about the fresh, new blood? Are these really the kinds of people one wants to associate with? Or are they just about of second-raters clinging to a thematic hook to cover their shoddy workmanship?
Enter Sword and Flower, by Rawle Nyanzi.
It’s not perfect. The stakes are unclear, partly due to the manner in which its protagonist finds herself thrust into a strange and alien world where a Puritan village struggles to fight off a demonic army. The near immediate introduction of miraculous healing drains the impact of wounds that might add to the tension and drama as well.
There’s a little too much telling and not showing, and sometimes at awkward moments. In the first chapter a young girl uses magic to heal a wounded warrior, and we’re immediately told, heavy handedly at that, that she has a romantic interest in the warrior which he does not reciprocate. Later, this becomes clear through her actions and words. By front loading the exposition, Nyanzi denies the reader the mystery of why the girl risked everything to save that particular warrior at that particular time.
Some of the emotional moments slide past with little impact on the action. When one of the biggest heroes of the piece dies, no one bats an eye. That hero gets an appropriate epilogue, but the death doesn’t faze the two heroes during the final confrontation. If the characters in the story don’t feel anything over the death of a major character, that’s a sign that the reader shouldn’t either.
Part of the issue here may be cultural. The Sword and the Flower wears its anime influences on its sleeve. It may be that the lack of emotional beats and light and airy combat sequences are considered a feature of the genre and not a bug. Speaking as somebody with little experience of the genre, I can only judge it based on how well it resonates as a piece of narrative fiction. My mind’s eye did not see anime characters posed against garish backdrops, but flesh and blood people. That they failed to act as flesh and blood people, but instead acted as animated ones set in a universe full of very different assumptions, could very well be true.
Bear in mind, that this is an enjoyable read. You don’t have to be well versed in anime tropes to appreciate the story. It works well even for those of us who don’t appreciate the anime aesthetic or assumptions. The story has drama, the story has emotional beats, and the story has plenty of, “show don’t tell”. The above criticisms are not meant to suggest what’s missing altogether, but rather what the story could use more of.
That said, let’s look at what it does have.
It’s certainly creative. You’ve got Japanese sorcery, Christian soldiers, Valkyries, clerics, and bizarre extra-dimensional living fortresses. That’s a heck of a recipe, and yet all of those disparate myths and legends are sewn together to make a seamless whole. Not a single one of those items feels out of place or shoved in at random – a common failure of ‘kitchen sink’ style tales.
The action sequences are stellar. The action rides along at a fast clip, and within each sequence, we know why the combatants are fighting. The fortunes of each fight ebb and flow, and although the outcome is never within doubt, each combat features a surprise or two along the way, keeping things from feeling predictable.
The characterizations are great. Each of the major characters is distinct from the next, and they each have plausible and believable motivations. Even the Puritan villagers’ frustrating hostility towards the sorcerous girl that saves them, are presented in a sympathetic light. Over the course of the story, thanks to the compassion shown by the protagonist, one begins to understand them, even if that understanding doesn’t make them any less frustrating.
The take-away here is that Sword and Flower is a great story. It’s easily on par with anything the major publishing houses are producing these days. It would have fit right in on the pages of a pulp magazine of old. It’s well worth the price of admission on Amazon.
But it’s not just a fun read that hews to my favored aesthetic. It’s a vindication that the people driving the Pulp Revolution forward really know what they are doing. It’s validation that Rawle Nyanzi isn’t just talking the Pulp Revolution talk, but he’s also walking the Pulp Revolution walk. It’s verification that the judgement of the people within the movement isn’t clouded by friendship or nostalgia.
This is one reader that’s looking forward to watching Nyanzi improve as a writer. He’s already pretty damn good at it.