I wrote about Jonathan Stroud's The Screaming Staircase weeks ago at Kirkus, and I'm still so crazy in love with it that I got all frothy-gushy about it this morning, just because Josh made the mistake of using the word 'sword' in conversation.
It pubs on September 17th, and I'm not sure if I'm going to make it until then... all I want to do is squee and squee and squee some more with all of the library patrons who I'm sure will love it as much as I do.
Anyway! It's smart, it's scary, it's exciting, it's funny, it's got loads of atmosphere and great world-building and DID I MENTION HOW MUCH I LOVE IT?
Um. I think I should probably just turn this post over to Jonathan Stroud right now before I embarrass myself further. Here he is!
One of the pleasures for me of my new series, Lockwood & Co., is that it gives me the excuse to equip my heroes with whopping great swords. Well, they’re rapiers, actually, which is important for reasons I’ll come to in a moment; but since my heroes are modern-day kids, the effect is still quite startling. Here’s the set-up. There’s an epidemic of hauntings in Britain, and Lockwood, Lucy and George are psychic investigators. Like other psychically talented children up and down the country, they’re on the front line in the battle with the supernatural enemy. Since ghosts are vulnerable to iron (among other things), iron weapons come in handy. And what could be better than a natty sword?
But not any old sword. No. As an avid reader, and as a watcher of movies, I learned early on that a sword (and the ensuing swordfight) is a clear philosophical expression of the character’s personality. Read about Conan the Barbarian, for instance, and you see someone who uses his monster broadsword to cleave skulls with appealing energy and brio; he’s not, however, the man to come to for subtlety, sophistication or aesthetic finesse. By contrast, heroes with lighter swords tend to be elegant, refined and classy. Men who wield them are masculine, but sensitive. The women? Strong but feminine. Hence the rapiers for my mixed-sex heroes of Lockwood & Co.
Anyway, to celebrate the publication of the series, here’s a handy guide to some of the sword-swishing heroes that I’ve most enjoyed…
My first literary pin-up. It helped that Robin was seared onto my consciousness thanks to his Errol Flynn incarnation, but he was also the star of numerous retellings that I adored when I was small. Robin was of course a bowman, first and foremost, but he was pretty nifty with a sword too, as Basil Rathbone’s ghost will tell you.
Another of my childhood heroes, although the interesting thing about him was that he didn’t actually use his sword that much. Most of the time he relies on his intelligence (plus large pointy stakes etc) to get him out of trouble. This points the way towards the fact that the most satisfying swordsmen (and women) are clever as well as skilled.
Asterix (in Asterix the Gaul, etc. by Goscinny and Uderzo)
This indomitable moustachioed Ancient Gaul always goes round with two things at his belt: a gourd of magic potion brewed by his druid, Getafix, and his faithful short sword. Most of his scraps, admittedly, involve simply punching Romans, but his cliff-top sword-fight with evil chieftain Whosemoralsarelastix in Asterix and the Cauldron is classic Hollywood material.
Rudolf Rassendyll (in The Prisoner of Zenda/Rupert of Hentzau by Anthony Hope)
The swordsman as pure Romantic hero. For maximum effect, Hope’s novels demand to be read in one’s teenage years. The doomed romance with a beautiful woman promised to another, the honourable suppression of one’s desires, the final dual to the death with the devilish Rupert of Hentzau… What wistful, spotty youth could ask for more?
The Grey Mouser (in Swords Against Deviltry, etc. by Fritz Leiber)
One half of Leiber’s ground-breaking swords-and-sorcery duo, the diminutive Mouser teams up with the giant barbarian Fafhrd for many disreputable adventures. The classic story of their meeting, Ill Met in Lankhmar, combines swashbuckling heroics with an appealingly sour, downbeat tone. A swordsman for a slightly older, more jaded palate.
Aillas (in Lyonesse, by Jack Vance)
For large portions of Vance’s masterpiece, Aillas is a vagabond king-in-waiting, enduring various picaresque adventures. Unshowy and supremely practical, he resorts to swordplay only when pushed; nevertheless, he is formidable in battle, and fully prepared to slice a treacherous fox-headed witch in two with one blow of his sword. And quite right too.
Monkey (in Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en, trans. Arthur Waley)
Okay, this is a cheat. Did Monkey actually have a sword? Nope. He had a magic staff, with which he duffed up demons and other evil-doers – but I’m going to say that’s near enough. Not only that, Monkey also had cloud-walking boots, once peed on Buddha’s hand, and, with his general irreverence, impudence and all-round cool, is easily the greatest anti-hero in classic literature. The hairy model against which all later swashbucklers must be measured.
Okay, I'm back to gush just a teeny, tiny bit more: HOLY COW, I LOVE THE GREY MOUSER SO MUCH. Third childhood crush, after Disney's foxy Robin Hood and Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe. I discovered him before Howl, even! SWOON. Obviously, his inclusion on the list is YET ANOTHER point in this book's favor.
Previously:Lauren Roedy Vaughn's Five Favorite Literary Adult Mentors... Plus Two Characters Who Need One.