Welcome to a city where noble houses jostle for prominence, their disputes settled by hired swordsmen. The story follows one of them and his lover, a university student-
Excuse me, I believe I can hear Morrissey serenading me. Yes, I have heard this one before and so have you. Yet, we haven’t.
The Sword in the Street does pay a very obvious homage to Swordspoint. However, this is no more a copy than The First Law was a copy of The Belgariad. Rather, just like the comparable, it is a book that riffs off a predecessor to start a conversation with it and the genre in general. Where is the contrast? Ellen Kushner once described Richard and Alec as her mad, bad boys and in my eyes, with John and Edwin, Caplan is asking how do you fix a mad, bad society.
The swordsman John is seeking the one big fight that will take him out of poverty and the Dregs; the student Edwin gets sucked into a plan to change the way the nobility change duels, through a mix of sigil magic and their own laws. Their personal relationship starts solid if occasionally fraught due to two strong personalities who see-saw on compromises, but those get harder and harder as their goals consume them. The plot centres on these two and I have to say there’s times where we’d seen more characters given a PoV, as I think it would have both widened and deepened the story. I complained about the Noble arcs as bit frothy in Swordspoint but, in not at all Goldilocks fashion, here I could have used more froth.
Speaking of Swordspoint, I must make another comparison to establish my context for reviewing this book. I like my fantasy more than a touch escapist, a diversion from reality as well as confrontation. Swordspoint managed that balance exceedingly well for me; The Sword in the Street is far more confrontation and as such, less me.
Despite that I enjoyed it. Caplan has a clean, laconic prose style that flows easily while allowing for a few poetic flourishes. He writes a tight plot that uses both conflict and mystery as a pull, and that wrongfooted me to my joy on one big occasion. His worldbuilding is in depth and I particularly enjoyed the conceits of sigils (drawn from Chaos Magick) and the last names (John Chronicler, Lordess Triumph, Madam Sway). There’s a lot of fight scenes and Caplan goes very in depth with his swordsman’s thoughts, which I appreciate, although it sometimes doesn’t work.
I think why it doesn’t work is due to sheer volume and I think to an extent we saw variations on some scenes over and over is something I wish the author had done different. Because we’re so focused on John and Edwin, their personal scenes, and John’s fights, take up a lot of the book. I mentioned wishing we had more PoVs, more width to the story. This is part of why. I also think it would have made the cast more colourful. There were times where John and Edwin felt similar in their thoughts; letting us see inside the mind of Lordess Triumph, or Edwin’s friend and would-be duelist Aubrey, or some of the dockers might have increased my ability to see the differences.
If Caplan’s characters had connected with me, the Lordess wouldn’t be the only triumph here. As it is, I’m not entirely sure how I rate it, but it’s good. It’s sometimes intense, sometimes sad, always heartfelt. It’s polished and thought-provoking. Readers will connect with that if it reaches them. I have not yet brought up representation but it is filled with well-drawn examples that will be a big plus for some; there is John and Edwin’s relationship and Edwin is himself autistic (Caplan himself is mentally disabled). I can definitely think of a few fellow readers who I think will really appreciate this and who I’ll be pushing this towards.
As for me, I’ll be looking forwards to the next one.
(This was an ARC copy provided by the author in exchange for an honest review. The Sword in the Street is out on the third of March – Amazon UK and US links here. To find out more about the author, visit his website here.)