A review by Nalini Haynes
Kel is an orphan living a happy-ish life in the orphanage until Legate Jolivet takes him to the palace to serve as bodyguard and body double for Prince Conor. Kel becomes the Sword Catcher.
Now Kel is out of touch with himself. He doesn’t even know what he wants as opposed to his role as protector of the prince. And the political scene is about to get VERY complicated.
The tapestry Cassandra Clare weaves is one of romance, intrigue, intra-city politics (there are TWO kings?!) and international politics.
Kel is in love with an aristocrat but also has a relationship with a sex worker from the “Temple” district. Conor, the prince, seems to resent Kel’s other attachments while having secrets of his own.
A walled enclave of Ashkar people is obviously a Jewish ghetto. It feels like they’re lambs ready for the slaughter although one is counsellor to the royal family. And his granddaughter, a physician, becomes enmeshed with the spoilt prince and his sword catcher.
Analogy vs racism
The Sword Catcher is quite the tome, at about 600 pages (including extras). I thoroughly enjoyed the story except for one fly in the ointment. And this fly was buzzing – metaphorically – before the Hamas attack and Israel’s retaliation. I took a break from the book for a few days around that time.
Clare obviously wrote the Ashkar as Jews. They have Jewish names, many Jewish customs, one of their religious/historical books is the Book of Makabi (Maccabean rebellion anyone?) and they are a scattered people with no homeland.
All of that is, historically, good representation.
And here’s the thing.
The Ashkar are innocent victims, their queen was young, innocent and pure. She did what no other sorcerer king did: she only took power from others who gave it willingly. Other sorcerer kings took power brutally, even murdering others to increase their magical power.
This is very black-and-white. And unrealistic.
History: fantasy vs reality
The king who sought to destroy the Ashkar queen was named Suleiman. It can be argued that Suleiman was actually the real pre-Anglicized name of King Solomon the Wise (from the Bible). But most people don’t know that. Even Wikipedia doesn’t mention that. Suleiman is generally accepted as a Muslim name and the name of a famous Ottoman Empire sultan.
I adore fantasy and science fiction for its ability to portray human issues and history in objectively. Cardassians versus Bajorans in Deep Space Nine, Naarn versus Centauri in Babylon 5, plus the Nightwatch in Babylon 5 as Nazis and neo-Nazis… So many different conflicts in these stories can be interpreted as any generational conflict in human history. Especially as the pendulum swings and first one side is conqueror then the other rises up exacting revenge during its time of strength.
But in the Sword Catcher those living in the ghetto are obviously Jewish. Deeply, disturbingly Jewish when taken in light of the “Jews as victims of a Muslim” trope. There are other races as well, Clare wove a complex pattern of international relationships. But the implications have the potential to bias readers who know little of history.
Christians versus Jews
The thing is, Christians (so-called) are just as much to blame as Muslims for the current Middle East crisis. I’ll skip over the last 2000 years of history while just mentioning THE CRUSADES. But in the past century alone, Nazi Germany claimed a type of Christianity while murdering millions of Jews. European countries and America turned away shiploads of Jews fleeing the holocaust, allowing them to starve, sicken and drown.
After the war, the powers that be decided – probably out of guilt and pressure from decent people (cough, voters, cough) – that this shouldn’t happen again.
So they decided to give a strip of land to the Jews. This became Israel.
They told my generation it was uninhabited land, a wasteland, and “look what the Jews have done with it!”
Not true. It was land that America and the UN did not own. I don’t know how they brokered that event. Invasion? Possibly. Colonisation? Definitely. And, since then, Israel and Palestine have been at odds, with border wars, attempted genocide and expansion attempts. (The Six Day War, anyone?)
Clare says Ashkar’s land is an uninhabited wasteland. Presumably by the end of this story (possibly a trilogy?) the Ashkar will resettle in their land, which will be healed.
Sadly there seem to be too many obvious parallels to history and propaganda and too little awareness of the problems.
Lest we forget
Lest we forget: many Christians down through history and in the present hate Jews. In theory, because “Jews put Christ to death”. Jesus was a Jew, folks. He wouldn’t want you to hate his people. Besides it was the Romans who put him to death. Why? Because the religious and political people in Israel feared that Jesus would foment a rebellion LIKE THE MACCABEAN REVOLT that ended with massacres of Jews. Hello?
So it was about politics. And, when you consider the larger political landscape, the Pharisees and Sadducees had good reason to fear genocide. What is the life of one man when held in balance with their nation? I’m not saying they did the right thing but I can see their point of view. And, from a Christian perspective, Christ had to die to become the Lamb of God sacrificed for our sins. So the Pharisees and Sadducees were put in an unenviable situation to carry out God’s plan. If you’re a Christian, anyway. And if you’re a Christian you have no right to condemn the Jews for Christ’s sacrifice.
And, in reality, persecution of the Jews for “religious” reasons is often (usually?) a cover for “I am going to imprison/murder you and steal your wealth”. Look at the Nazis. First they forced Jews to register their assets then they stole those assets and used 1/3 of those assets to fund the war.
And there’s that other reason: “The world is going to shit so let’s blame [waves finger above list of minorities] Jews! Because voters can’t blame me [the prime minister] for the mess I and my colleagues caused”.
So it’s complicated.
And we need nuance and bridges not people bombing hospitals.
If I could close my mind to the obvious Jew vs Muslim aspect of The Sword Catcher, I would absolutely love and rave about this book.
However, I can’t.
And it seems that The Sword Catcher, Israel’s government and most media to which I have access are all in lock step. Painting Muslims, Palestinians, as the “bad guys”.
Clare writes nuanced Ashkar/Jewish characters. There are power struggles, abusive men etcetera, within the enclave. They are not all sweetness and light. But, by and large, they are powerless victims living behind a wall.
Much like those in the West Bank and Gaza. Who are, in case you’re not aware, PALESTINIANS. Most of whom are NOT Hamas.
The Sword Catcher has it all: political intrigue, high stakes, romance, spoilt rich man-children, an outspoken woman fighting for her place in the world… I love the story. I just wish Clare wasn’t so blatant about making the exiled refugee people Jewish victims of Muslim greed. Even novels shape our worldviews. More people need to be unblinkered and knowledgeable to influence real change in the Middle East.
I love Bridget Hodder and Fawzia Gilani-Williams’s collaborations, books about friendships between Jews and Muslims, based on historical fact. Like The Promise. However, these books are for a much younger age group. Perhaps Cassandra Clare could talk to Hodder and Gilani-Williams about collaborating on a YA novel. I know it’s unrealistic but I can live in hope.
I believe this is a Jewish saying, which I memorized at bible college because it’s deep.
He who knows not and knows not that he knows not, is a fool; shun him.
He who knows not and knows that he knows not, is a child; teach him.
He who knows and knows not that he knows, is asleep; wake him.
He who knows and knows that he knows is wise; follow him.
May we all become more wise and call on our political leaders for real change. And God help us; white supremacist Americans who may or may not claim to be Christian want to kill Muslims AND Jews. This is a triad of religious people who need to learn to love and live alongside each other.
Rating: It’s complicated. Read my verdict.
Imprint: Tor Books
Format: all the shiny formats. Mine is a paperback but it’d make a gorgeous hardcover.
Category: romance, adventure, fantasy, international politics, coming of age