By the Sword

by Mercedes Lackey

Cover image

Series: Vows and Honor #4
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: February 1991
ISBN: 0-88677-463-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 492

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By the Sword is the next book in my (slow) Valdemar re-read. This one is a bit hard to classify in the series; it's technically a stand-alone novel, and it doesn't require a lot of prior series knowledge. But the heroine, Kerowyn, is a relative of Tarma and Kethry, and Tarma and Kethry appear in this novel. Most of the book also deals with similar themes as the rest of the Tarma and Kethry books, even though it's also a bridge into Valdemar proper. I'm going to follow Fantastic Fiction and call it book four of the Vows and Honor series, even though the publisher doesn't refer to it that way and it's not strictly correct. I think that creates the right impression, and it's mildly better to read the other Tarma and Kethry novels first.

This book is also a bit confusing for reading order. It was published just before the Mage Winds trilogy, and happens before them in series chronological order (between that trilogy and the Talia series). But some of the chronologies in some of the Valdemar books show it after the Mage Winds trilogy. I think I originally read it afterwards, but both natural reading order and publication order puts it first, and that's the ordering I followed this time.

Series ordering trivia aside (sometimes the comic book shared universe continuity geek in me raises its head), By the Sword is a hefty, self-contained novel about a very typical Lackey protagonist. Kerowyn is the daughter of a noble house, largely ignored by her father in favor of her brother and tasked with keeping the keep running since her mother died. She wants to learn to fight and ride, but that's not part of her father's plans for her. But those plans become suddenly irrelevant when the keep is attacked during her brother's wedding and the bride kidnapped. Unless someone at least attempts to recover her, this will be taken as an excuse for conquest of the keep by the bride's family.

(Spoilers for the start of the book in the following paragraph. I think the outcomes are reasonably obvious given the type of book this is, but skip it if you don't want to know anything about the plot.)

If you're familiar with Lackey's musical work (most probably won't be, but you might if you follow filk), "Kerowyn's Ride" is the start of this book. Kerowyn goes to her grandmother Kethry, who is semi-legendary to Kerowyn but well-known to readers of the rest of the series. From Kethry, she acquires Need; with Need's help, she improbably manages to rescue her brother's bride. It seems like a happy ending, but it completely disrupts and destroys her life. Her role as hero does not fit any of the expectations the remaining members of the household have for her. But it also gives her an escape: she ends up as Tarma and Kethry's student, learning all the things about fighting she'd craved to learn and preparing for a life as a mercenary.

Quite a few adventures follow, all of which are familiar to Lackey readers and particularly to readers of the Tarma and Kethry books. But I think this is one of Lackey's better-written books. The pacing is reasonably good despite the length of the book, Kerowyn is a likable and interesting character, and I like the pragmatism and practicalities that Lackey brings to sword and sorcery mercenary groups. In style and subject matter, it's the closest to Oathbreakers, which was also my favorite of the Tarma and Kethry novels.

By the Sword is both the natural conclusion of the Tarma and Kethry era and arc, and vital foundational material for what I think of as the "core" Valdemar story: Elspeth's adventures during Selany's reign, which start in the Mage Winds trilogy immediately following this. Kerowyn becomes a vital supporting character in the rest of the story, and Need is hugely important in events to come. But even if you're not as invested in the overall Valdemar story arc as I am, this is solid, if a bit predictable and unspectacular, sword and sorcery writing presented in a meaty and satisfying novel with a good coming-of-age story.

This is one of my favorites of the Valdemar series as measured by pure story-telling. There are other books that provide more interesting lore and world background, but there are few characters I like as well as Kerowyn, and I find the compromise she reaches with Need delightful. If you liked Oathbreakers, I'm pretty sure you'd like this as well. And, of course, recommended if you're reading the whole Valdemar series as a fairly key link in the plot and a significant bridge between the Heralds and Tarma and Kethry's world, a bridge that Elspeth is about to cross in the other direction.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-05-30

Last modified and spun 2016-08-15