The Sword and Shield (Emma Khoury)

The Sword and Shield is the debut novel by Emma Khoury.
Finished on: 11.5.2020
[I won this book in a LibraryThing Early Reviewer giveaway.]

Ezra is a mercenary – either hired as an assassin or as a bodyguard. And he is damned good at it. After finishing yet another successful job, he comes home to his cats – and to a welcome committee who bring him to his next employer in secrecy: Crown Prince Christophe would like his help. He is afraid that his own family is trying to kill him and needs somebody to have his back. Despite his desperate need for sleep, Ezra accepts the job and moves to the castle within a week. It soon becomes crystal clear that Christophe’s fears weren’t unfounded.

The Sword and Shield is a very good read, especially considering that it’s a debut novel. Plus, I loved that we got a chronically ill, asexual protagonist. More of (things like) this, please!

The Sword and Shield doesn’t have the most innovative world building – it’s your classic medivalish monarchist high fantasy setting, though it does wear its real-world influences on its sleeve a little more than is often the case. There’s a Slavic inspired country, and a Chinese inspired country which gives the setting a little more variety and is definitely appreciated. Also because it means that Christophe is biracial.

Still, the world-building could have been expanded a little. As could have the politics of this world – they are a little simple: evil king, good crown prince and everything will be better once the bad regent is exchanged for a good regent. But I’m saying that mostly because I often take issue with the monarchist standard in fantasy. Give me more fantasies that aren’t a monarchy or where the monarchy is overthrown!

That being said, I chalk this up mostly to The Sword and Shield being a debut and also to the fact that the plot does take a backseat here. That means that it just didn’t matter all that much. In the end, this book is all about Ezra and who he is as a person. It takes a surprisingly long part of the book, for example, until he actually starts the job with Christophe and until then, we just get to see him prepare, meeting his friends, doing some shopping. By all rights, it should be kind of boring – but it’s not at all. It’s very enjoyable to get to know Ezra in this way.

Ezra himself is an interesting character. It’s not only that he is chronically ill (an auto-immune disorder that reduces his ability to heal and that he manages with medication) or that he is asexual (it is made explicit rather late in the book, but to me, it was pretty obvious from the way he interacts with the women in his life that he is queer in some way, and I doubted that he was gay – I’m sure ace people will recognize the signs even better than I did from the start), Khoury also strikes a good balance with him in that he is both soft – caring, vulnerable – and hard – an efficient and effective killer.

I did struggle with the torture scenes because, apart from all ethical considerations, dammit, torture doesn’t work and we need to stop pretending it does. I don’t want to read about a person I should be rooting for callously torturing another, and neither do I want to read about somebody else hardening by witnessing and participating in said torture as a good development.

The book does sport a couple more typos and smaller editing mistakes than average, I’d say and there are two instances where smaller details are dropped from the story (Marya’s return to the city from the castle is never mentioned; and what the fuck happened to the kitten?) that should have been caught in editing. But those mistakes never get too much for the book to not be an entertaining, quick read that was just the right thing for me as I haven’t read a high fantasy book in a while (like, months!). If you’re looking for a quick fantasy fix that isn’t an epic series, you should definitely go for it.

Summarizing: Fun, enjoyable and quick read.

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