Publish Date: 3 March 2021
Page Count: 294 pages
Loving the idea of a grimdark fantasy book with a gay protagonist, I contacted C. M. Caplan a few months ago to request a review copy of The Sword in the Street. While not what I expected, it turned out to be an offbeat but relatable fantasy story.
The Sword in the Street is a low fantasy, slice-of-life story set in a city where all workers require patron sponsorship, which has led to extreme classism and poverty. The protagonist John Chronicle is a hired blade working for Lordess Triumph, struggling to make a living by fighting duels at her behest. Struggling for a fair wage, John is desperate to fight as many duels as it takes to keep a roof over his head. His boyfriend Edwin, an autistic university student, discovers forgotten history and magic that could help John in his plight. But the tension between the men grows as they face increasingly difficult choices amid civil unrest.
Firstly, Caplan knows how to write an epic sword fight (fortuitous given the book title). John’s duels are central to the story and are fought to settle disputes, validate legal proceedings, or purely to entertain the aristocracy. The fight scenes were visual and curiously insightful which never failed to grasp my attention, while Caplan’s overall writing style is succinct.
I also liked the setting that Caplan has conceived, a vibrant yet forbidding city with distinct boroughs and ways of life. It helps set the tone of the book, and I would love to have seen it explored in more detail.
The sigil magic system in the book is interesting, though its use is very subtle. I don’t necessarily need magic to play a big part in fantasy books, and in this case, I wondered if it was necessary at all. I was left with a few questions, though perhaps I’ve overlooked the author’s intention with this aspect of the story.
The relationship between John and Edwin is very much at the heart of the book, and the introspective approach to this makes for an intimate reading experience. Their love for each other is unwavering, but their relationship is complicated by vastly different ways of thinking, and the decisions that they make. Edwin only wants a comfortable life for John but is frustrated by his stubbornness and often ill-advised decisions. Despite his own struggle with past trauma, John finds it difficult to understand Edwin’s anxiety.
I used the phrase ‘slice-of-life’ earlier in my review simply because John, Edwin and their respective challenges feel so realistically portrayed. Caplan’s focus on character realism, and equally, accurate neurodiverse representation, is certainly a departure from what we regularly see in fantasy stories. I highly recommend reading Caplan’s recent post on FanFiAddict, The Myth of Accurate Representation – Neurodivergence in Fiction, where he discusses the publishing industry’s bias towards neurotypical readers.
While there were some things about this story that didn’t quite work for me, I’m really glad I had the chance to read it, particularly after the insight I gained from reading Caplan’s post. He has certainly provided what he points out is lacking in the publishing industry, which is new perspectives and stories that challenge default narratives.
Many thanks to the author for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Trigger warnings: Violence, ableism, self-harm, addiction, reference to abuse and rape.
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