Death Is Easy

Russell Madden

Freedom As If It Mattered

As If
It Mattered
Russell Madden

Guardian Project

The Guardian
Russell Madden


Russell Madden




Russell Madden


Wilson, F. Paul, By the Sword, Gauntlet Press, May, 2008, $69.00. (Sold out.) (Available in trade edition, November, 2008, Forge Books.)

Watching over Repairman Jack’s shoulder as he performs his extra-legal services righting wrongs is always a delight. His efforts at fulfilling the wishes of his clients while adhering to his strict standard of conduct make him a figure rare in modern literature: one who not only believes in freedom and justice, but one who practices those virtues ruthlessly and consistently. Jack’s travails in his latest adventure, By the Sword, continue that worthy tradition.
As the title of this review suggests, in this novel, Jack both literally and figuratively finds himself dealing with a double-edged sword. The actual blade in question is a Japanese katana sought by three (or four, depending upon one’s point of view) different groups. As should come as no surprise to those familiar with the universe of the Adversary, this ancient weapon has eerie connections to the Otherness. Its supernaturally sharp edge and sturdy blade not only survived a nuclear blast, those who hold this marvel of craftsmanship discover that surrendering it is no easy task.
The mystical allure of the sword is such that even Jack is tested in his ability to let it go. Perhaps such a situation is natural. After all, Jack is, in his own way, a two-edged sword. Standing at the nexus between the Ally and the Adversary, between the natural world and the Otherness, between peaceful interaction and explosive violence, Jack is permeated by “oDNA,” the “Taint” that contaminates his relationships with both society and Gia, the woman he loves above all else. While the exact nature of the katana’s connection to the Otherness is not explicated in this story, its significance in the ultimate conflict looming close over this fictional horizon seems clear and unequivocal.
Another link Jack shares with this unprepossessing prize is the fact that both he and the blade have the potential to be wielded either for good or for evil. While Jack’s customers do, in a sense, view him as a tool to achieve their ends, his is the choice whether or not to accept their tasks. And just as Jack must constantly struggle to prevent his inner rage from escaping its hidden bonds, so, too, he realizes, the katana can, despite its ties to the Otherness, become an implement for positive ends or a means to senseless destruction. The nature of those results lies not so much with the instrument itself but rather with who decides to take it in hand and when and how and against whom the blade is directed.
Hints of where Jack’s future is headed are woven throughout By the Sword. He gains new insights into the coming Armageddon from an old man — Glenn Veilleur — who has an ancient connection with this saga. He also becomes acquainted — or more precisely, reacquainted — with a woman who likes to walk her dog and share cryptic tidbits with the Repairman. Even writer P. Frank Winslow and his kick-ass character Jake Fixx provide Jack information on the dangers he faces.
Other, familiar actors in this dark drama are affected in one way or another by the missing sword. Pregnant Dawn Pickering is as much a target for acquisition as is the blade. Her “super-tainted baby” shares the dual nature exhibited by the katana and by Jack. Some folks such as Hank Thompson —leader of the Kicker cult — view Dawn’s future offspring as key to a glorious future. Others such as “Mr. Osala” believe the baby will possess no special powers, that Dawn’s grandfather’s belief that the newborn would provide a locus for creating his vision of the world was nothing more than a delusion; that all his conniving and plotting were meaningless attempts at self-aggrandizement. Or maybe not...
Like the overall, slow buildup towards the earth-shattering cataclysm depicted in Nightworld, the action in By the Sword also advances at a more-leisurely-than-usual pace. Unlike many Repairman Jack novels, in this story, no major, game-changing event strikes at the core of Jack’s personal world. Indeed, despite Jack’s constant direct or indirect presence here, he is more a bystander in the game, someone seeking either to tie up loose ends (for example, Dawn) or to finish a job he only half-heartedly accepted in the first place (finding the sword).
This staging, of course, does nothing to diminish Jack’s centrality to the climax of By the Sword. Indeed, only his decisions, his actions, promise to rescue his cherished home, New York City, from a destruction that would dwarf the attack on the World Trade Center. Not everyone in this tale is as enamored as he is of the Big Apple.
Bad enough that Jack finds himself sucked into yet another conflict he did not know existed, he is still wrestling with the aftermath of the attempted murder of Gia and her daughter Vicky. Reluctant because of his “contamination” to allow himself to be intimate with Gia, he discovers that — in one sense — the “old” Gia he has worshipped for so long no longer exists. The darkness that has dogged Jack’s heels now has its teeth firmly in his lover’s life, affecting — infecting? — her in ways that neither she nor Jack fully comprehend.
The ambiguous nature of so many people and situations in this story is both a strength — and a weakness — of By the Sword. Indeed, this review does, in its own manner, cut both ways. While there are many strong elements in this novel, I often found myself less enthused about other aspects of the tale.
The rather sedately mounting tension mentioned above kept me from being drawn into the plot as quickly as I have been in previous Repairman Jack novels. Another mitigating factor in my involvement is the less personal nature of the conflict Jack confronts. Since RJ is emotionally more at arm’s-length from the core issue, I shared his rather detached attitude.
A stronger factor in my distance from By the Sword was my mild (perhaps not so mild?) disdain or dislike of Dawn Pickering. While I don’t know the relative word-count devoted to her versus RJ here, my impression was that she dominated the story. Given that I (still) find her a relatively unappealing character, that did little to hook me. Despite all that she endured in her last appearance in RJ’s world and her cleverness in seeking her desires in By the Sword, she struck me as continuing her remarkably immature and annoying ways; almost approaching “Valley Girl” status. Unable to generate any real sympathy for her plight or empathy for her as a person, I found it difficult to care much what happened to her. Imprisonment. Abortion. Sexual exploitation. Death. Whatever. Ehn...
Indeed, though she appears to learn a thing or two over the course of the book, Dawn ends the story in essentially the identical place where she began, both literally and in terms of her baby’s possible significance in the coming cosmic battle.
This running-to-stay-in-place feeling extended to Hank Thompson, to Rasalom (who shares Voldemort’s [from Harry Potter] ability to track those who speak his name), to Jack, to... Well, much of the book. (Having recently read Stephen Hunter’s The 47th Samurai with its own version of a mystical katana contributed to my sense of déjà vu. Even the big battle scene concocted by RJ reminded me of a blend of sequences from the movies Enemy of the State and Crocodile Dundee II.) Some of this is inevitable, I suppose, in a series that is planned to extend across “sixteen or seventeen Repairman Jack novels (not counting the young adult titles).” Not all of these can involve intensely rising action.
Still, despite its intriguing aspects, By the Sword comes across almost as a placeholder, treading water while portents boil beneath the surface. Nothing much of significance is either revealed or resolved. Little real progress is made towards the final battle. No prominent characters undergo major transformations. Like the proverbial Chinese dinner, consuming this story is tasty fun while it lasts, but leaves one hungering for more when it is finished.

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