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