Sword-Dancer by Jennifer Roberson
6,895 Ratings | 3.98/5 Average
*** Warning: References to rape and slavery***
I just finished reading Sword-Dancer by Jennifer Roberson, and I am so dissatisfied.
I admit I bought Sword-Dancer largely for a laugh due to the phallic and sexualized cover illustration, and so I went into the novel without expectations of quality. In hindsight, this might have been a problem in-and-of itself. Because I expected a ridiculous book, I was disarmed by how much I enjoyed it.
The premise is straightforward. A chauvinist sword-for-hire—Tiger—meets a hard-as-ice woman—Del—seeking her kidnapped brother. They team up, mostly due to Tiger’s desire to bone Del, and tackle the dangerous obstacles standing between her and her brother.
All of this is told through Tiger’s narration. He’s half talking as if telling the story at a bar—he issues lots of asides for the reader’s benefit—and half as if he’s narrating events as they unfurl. I normally would hate this approach, but Tiger has just the right amount of self-awareness to make it work. Hoolies, he even made me laugh a few times.
He is a chauvinist, though. He thinks of women almost exclusively in terms of their attractiveness and his chances of getting in their pants. He takes a surprising amount of pride in only having sex with women consensually, and even then, he’s more than happy to make deals where desperate women without other recourse offer him sex in exchange for his help.
Of course, these thoughts directly correlate with actions. He pays more attention to Del’s figure than her thoughts, words, or strengths. He regularly thinks less of and belittles her. Not pointedly, not angrily, but as he would a child.
This sort of thing could be frustrating, but it’s not. I actually found it a bit refreshing. In my reading, I’ve found that men are usually depicted in one of three ways:
Characaturely insecure af and pointedly belittling, undermining and insulting women while simultaneously trying to fuck them.
Sexist yet accepted and unchallenged. Take, for example, the Lionman main-character from The Guardsman.
Perfectly respectable, and any infractions are bite-sized and spin off perfect learning moments and the man never behaves poorly towards woman again. Like a heartfelt episode of any 90s show aimed at teenagers.
Of course, the reality is that there are countless men like Tiger—likable men who are, you know, also pretty damn sexist.
Del is a good counter-point to Tiger’s chauvinism. She doesn’t mince around his bullshit. And as the story unfurls, she proves that just because women and men aren’t literally the same doesn’t mean they can’t accomplish the same things.
(Aside: Sword-Dancer is one of only two (so far) pointedly feminist books I’ve read for ForFemFan, the other being The Wicked Enchantment.)
For most of the novel, there were also the normal trappings of a good book: solid pacing, good chemistry between the characters, an opinionated horse, etc, etc. For a while, I thought I was going to instantly buy book #2 in the series and suggest my husband give Sword-Dancer a read.
And then, without sixty pages to go, the book lost me due to sheer character stupidity and poor pacing.
Still, it might be up your alley.
**** SPOILERS AHEAD ****
**Though none of them are of the ending**
While on their quest, Tiger and Del find themselves in the presence of a desert prince. These princes are essentially dictators of tiny kingdoms. And, as is often the case of dictators, most of them are far from benevolent and dangerous as all get out.
Leading up to this encounter, Tiger is fucking the princes’ betrothed. Someone even warns them that this prince is not good-natured.
So when this prince offers Del and Tiger wine, naturally, they drink it without hesitation.
When they escape from the capture their drugged-wine made so easy, they ride immediately to another pince-dom and meet with another prince. A prince with a worse reputation, nonetheless. And when they’re offered wine by this second prince? Why the hell not. Tiger pours Del a glass, which she quaffs immediately.
Which renders her incapable of helping Tiger fight off the eight-or-so guards sicced on them a few minutes later.
This is where Sword-Dancer truly goes off the rails. They’re held in captivity for three months—Del as, most likely, a sex-slave. Tiger as a manual laborer in a mine where he’s worn down so much that his narration even shifts into third person, and instead of Tiger’s name, he’s referred to as “the man.”
This is by far my biggest complaint against the book: both Tiger and Del’s pointed foolhardiness and their odd three months in slavery summed up in a chapter or so. I was so grumpers I skipped whole pages to get to their inevitable confrontation with their slaver.
If it weren’t for the fact that I had a mere thirty pages left to read, I think I would have quit entirely. But I was so close to the end and, I admit, I was curious about how it would wrap up with such little time left.
The answer is abruptly. The conclusion to the main plot and a weird, secondary plot barely get time to breathe. And then the book is over with a heart-warming decision and enough of an opening in the secondary plot to ensure a second book in the series.
Another problem, and this ran throughout, is Tiger’s bias against eunuchs. Unlike his sexism, which is made obvious, not glorified, and regularly kept in check by Del, this bias goes unchallenged. For most of the book, I was okay with this if only because his biases were all in his head. Outwardly he treats eunuchs well, so how can anyone call him out on his crap?
At one point, he claps a man named Sabo on the shoulder and calls him an ‘honorable man.’ Sabo almost becomes emotional over this. In this world, eunuchs are not considered men, so a famed and definitively manly-man like Tiger calling him a man is a great kindness.
This felt to me like A Moment. One where we, as the readers, are supposed to pause and consider that perhaps we underestimated this lusty chauvinist. Sure, he’s got some lame ideas about women, but he’s seriously good-hearted despite all that.
The problem is that his words to Sabo are mere lip-service. Sometime after meeting Sabo, when Del refers to her (castrated) horse as a ‘him,’ Tiger insists that there’s nothing male left in the horse. According to Tiger, the horse is now an ‘it.’
I was waiting for it, that beautiful moment where Del points out that Tiger treats Eunuchs the way he treats women: as inferior, as weak, as in-need.
But it didn’t come. Del remained silent, the moment passed. And that feels weird/gross.
Cover art by Kathy Wyatt