Daughter of the Sword (Fated Blades, #1)
Recommended for: Those looking for a different style of UF
Daughter of the Sword is not your standard urban fantasy. It is free from snarky, trenchcoat-wearing protagonists, twisted fairy tales, and supernaturally steamy love triangles. There are no vampires. There are no werewolves. In fact, supernatural creatures of all varieties are entirely absent. There's not even all that much magic. Instead, Daughter of the Sword is the story of a modern-day Tokyo policewoman dealing with modern-day crime in the modern-day world when suddenly confronted with ancient swords that have the mysterious ability to slice through fate itself. The story is steeped in legend and weaves its way between past and present, interspersing policewoman Mariko's story with that of individuals throughout Japan's history who have borne one of the fated blades.
I approached this story as more of a folktale retelling rather than an urban fantasy--more the mythic fantasy of Charles de Lint than the urban fantasy adventures of Mercy Thompson or Kate Daniels. The characters themselves are rather standard folktale stock: the spunky heroine who defies gender stereotypes; the ancient, wise, and impossibly graceful swordsman; the blind child who spouts cryptic prophecies; the lame, humble, and upright brother whose gentle innocence is tested by his arrogant and antagonistic brother. Yet the history is meticulously researched and the atmosphere of fable is deftly cultivated. I feel it is neither the intent nor the effect of this novel to break new ground; instead, it harnesses the power of myth and history to bring the same aura of legend to a more modern tale. I greatly enjoyed the effect.
Perhaps because the characters of the modern story are so rooted in the archetypes of legend, I had some difficulty warming to them. For one thing (surprise!) I found the portrayal of gender issues somewhat problematic. Maybe it's a culture thing--maybe women in Japan really do face the explicit, overt sexism that Mariko experiences. However, while a man in your face telling you straight out that he's trying to demote you to traffic solely because of your chromosomes is obviously problematic, I don't think Bein really managed to capture the oppressive sense of isolation that women in male-dominated positions tend to experience. Overt, surface-level sexism is, by its very nature, as superficial as it is blatant, and therefore has the some tiny potential to be excised. I like Mariko and her story--I really do. But if you step back, the main plot arc itself exhibits these same issues. The end result of the whole 'no man can bear this blade' thing doesn't exactly come as a surprise; I've lost count of the number of stories that have used this trope even before Tolkein's Eowyn made it notorious. At some point, can't we move past the simple 'my God! A woman can succeed where men before her have failed!' trope? Here, it is especially problematic; our revenge-driven blade is, after all, the spirit of a woman who uses her sexual attraction to beguile the men around her, drives them mad with passion, and, when finally scorned, enacts terrible retribution upon them. I'm getting awfully tired of femme fatales who seek only to lure and destroy the men around them. Since the sword's power was all about sexual attraction, I suppose that the story could have trod newer ground with a gay or asexual wielder, but instead it apparently expected us to be surprised from a denouement foretold by the title itself. ]
The structure of the book alternates between long sections of past and present, interleaving stories of the swords' pasts with their influence on the present. The present-day scenes are told from the perspective of the policewoman Mariko and the sword-bearing yakuza Fuchida. The portrayal of Mariko's family life and her struggles with her wayward sister add dimensionality to her character, but also echo the themes of the stories from the swords' pasts. I was less satisfied with the character of Fuchida, as I failed to fully understand or sympathise with his motivations or those of the American. Yes, I can understand the basics; Fuchida was motivated by arrogance and vanity and the desire to outdo his father, but those are cold, cardboard motivations that lacked dimensionality for me. The American made almost no sense. Why the obsession with swords? If it was just 'any old antique,' then why not choose another when things got hairy? How on earth did two drug dealers fixated on antique swords hook up in the first place?]. Yet even this sense of characters' actions separated from selves is much in line with the traditional structure of the legend, where motivations and personalities are secondary to the story itself.
What I loved most about the book was that not only did it bring the modern-day Japan to life, but its structure and themes beautifully unified its disparate stories and time periods. If you're in the mood for something different from Dresdenish or Danielsish urban fantasy, take a look at Bein's tale of modern crime and ancient blades.