If you ever wanted to know what would happen when a Japanese pop-star who can use magic teams up with a sword-fighting Puritan warrior to fight demons in weird dimension that may or may not be limbo, then Rawyle Nyanzi has answered this question for you in his debut offering, the novella Sword & Flower.
Even if you’ve never had these questions–and if you haven’t, I’m sorry–Sword & Flower is a fun, exciting read, part of the nascent “Pulp Revolution,” looking to bring back the spirit, energy, and free-wheeling nature of sci-fi and fantasy’s golden age.
You know, before politics, social justice, and lots of other stuff that has nothing to do with storytelling got in the way of storytelling.
Think more adventure and less angst.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must state that Rawle is a personal friend. He and I talk writing very often in person or on-line, and have read and critiqued each other’s work. In fact, I had the pleasure of reading early versions of Sword & Flower, and it’s interesting to see what suggestions I had and points Rawle missed made it into the final story.
I don’t want to give away too many of Sword & Flower‘s plot points since it is short–104 pages–but I have to give some, as it has as unique a premise as you’ll find.
Lesser Heaven is a place where some go when they die, where they are held before achieving either a seat in paradise or eternal damnation. Why this is so, and what they must do to get a full reckoning, however, is still a mystery.
Interestingly, people seem to get sorted on the basis of geography and culture, so that an thirteenth-century Zulu tribesman would be with other thirteenth-century Zulu tribesman while a twenty-fifth century space-faring Chinese astronaut would appear with other twenty-fifth century Chinese, and so on.
That’s right: All cultures and all time periods coexist simultaneously in Lesser Heaven, so you just know that interesting interactions are bound to take place.
One such involves Dimity Red (real name: Chiyo Aragaki), Japanese pop sensation, who meets her end in a grisly manner and finds herself in Lesser Heaven. For some reason, though, she is immediately attacked by a demon, saved by a Valkyrie, and then deposited near a settlement of Puritans. And though she helps these pilgrims stave off demons that menace their settlement, she is soon arrested for being a Satanic witch.
Luckily, she catches the eye of the free-thinking son of the settlement’s pastor, nicknamed Mash, who senses her goodness and questions his own people’s automatic dismissal of what should be considered, perhaps quite literally, as a God-send.
I told you, Sword & Flower has a bit of everything.
Aside from the premise–which is fun–it moves at a brisk pace. You will never be bored. More interestingly is the nuance with which Nyanzi treats the topic of religion, particularly Christianity, which is usually bashed directly or by analogy in most science-fiction and fantasy.
Nyanzi doesn’t endorse one religious approach or another, but refreshingly avoids the typical, hackneyed tropes that tend to define most writing about religious folk. His Puritans are pious, brittle, and somewhat hypocritical, yes, but they honestly and earnestly believe their faith, and are scared about why they are in Lesser Heaven, and why God seems to have forsaken them. It’s well-balanced and deftly handled without taking the reader out of the story by injecting the author’s own personal views.
A small quibble is that it’s never established why Dimity knows magic (or ki) other than that she does a lot of meditation. It doesn’t really matter for story related purposes (dig how she uses this power to create a light show during her concerts; very cool!), however, so this is something you can just roll with.
The writing is a little on-the-nose–people don’t typically say exactly what they feel–and could have benefited from a little more editing for neatness and redundancy’s sake (Rawle, you have my number, and I’m cheap (read: free))), but the action is fun, the characters so interesting, and the premise so wonderfully wacky that you can overlook it. I’m impressed by how Nyanzi can flesh his cast out so quickly that, after a paragraph or two, you know who is who and why they do what they do, though the villain is a little mustache-twirlingly cartoony.
Of course, there are more unanswered questions which make me wish Sword & Flower was longer. I want to explore this world more and see what other kinds of crazy situations Nyanzi throws into the blender in his mind. And that ending, a perfect Twilight Zone-esque twist, left me wanting more.
All together, I highly recommend Sword & Flower. It’s a breath of fresh air, reminiscent of a comic book or a video game of my youth, when everything was thrown against the wall with the only litmus test being, “Is it fun?” Highly enjoyable and, having read other of Nyanzi’s writing, leaves me looking forward to more.
And it costs ninety-nine cents on your Kindle. You have no excuse not to read it.
And check out my Instagram here.