Monday, January 22, 2024

Novella Project: Between Blades by Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko

 You've heard of sword lesbians... now it's time for spear queers

When does a story begin? Is it at the birth of a new dynasty, following the journey of a charismatic empress-to-be and her loyal retainer as they redefine magical combat and fight their way to ultimate glory? Is it the moment that three young folks, constrained by societal expectations on their gender and social roles, choose to leave and find new ways of expressing themselves? For Between Blades, it's neither: this is a story about after those first journeys of awakening and self discovery, set largely on the outskirts of an established regime that's as Not Great as empires tend to be, with characters who are comfortable, if not entirely secure, in who they are. Also, people in this world can magically turn into sentient weapons, and use this ability to fight conveniently non-lethal gladiatorial matches for fun and profit AND as another source of confirmation and anxiety about their self-identity. Humans are resourceful like that!

Between Blades is the story of young-ish gladiators Leris a Leshin and Gerthe a Mnibo, an up-and-coming fighting duo on the outskirts of the empire. Leris and Gerthe are unusual in several respects, as fighters go. While most fighting pairs switch up the person who goes into "swordform" and the person who doesn't, giving them more fighting options, Gerthe hates transforming while Leris adores the time she spends as a sentient spear, pushing the limits of the magical form as she does. Gerthe, as a Mniboan, also has an unusual relationship with her twin brother Ulmo: they share a body, although Ulmo rarely "fronts" and never, ever fights. Leris and Gerthe are doing very well on their provincial circuit when an opportunity arises: a competition overseen by the Emperor's right-hand woman (and wielder) Maria Agrippa, where the winners will be sponsored to fight in Traiti, the heart of the empire. The gang - though it's mostly Leris doing the deciding - must choose whether push forward with an opportunity that will further their careers and increase their chances at glory, but will also bring them to the heartland of an empire: a place that will both test their fighting capacities and treat them as outsiders, with all the emotional upheaval that brings.

Leris, Gerthe and Ulmo do find themselves journeying into empire, though it's not quite as simple as they expect, and find themselves in the middle of political dynamics far beyond what they anticipated, which test all three of them in quite traumatic ways. These political dynamics are excellent, and Maria Agrippa and her empress Livia have to be two of the deepest written side characters I've ever read in a novella, conveying enormous promises of untold story when they're on the page together and even when Agrippa is carrying things on her own. But all of Between Blades' intricate, detailed worldbuilding is ultimately in service of its main characters' stories, and these are at heart stories of queerness, neurodiversity and more broadly how we present to the world.

Leris' story is very explicitly about gender: she comes from a culture where men and women have specific gender roles, symbolised by the axe for men and the spear for women respectively, and her transformation into a spear in swordform has become a sign that the men's social role that her community expected of her was wrong. The reader is given no reason not to accept this at face value - Leris uses she/her pronouns throughout and never doubts her own womanhood - but the simplicity and rigidness of her culture's binary gender roles becomes a limiting factor in how she defines herself, and it takes a rather intense shake-up to reconceptualise her relationship to... well, speariness. 

Meanwhile, Gerthe and Ulmo's roles are more in the background until the novella's third act, and we don't directly see their point of view, but the reason for their outsider status becomes a key factor in the story's climax. I won't spoil it here, but the connecting thread for both Leris and Gerthe/Ulmo is the weight of societal expectations on one's identity, and how impossible this can be to mould oneself to if it doesn't already fit. Sometimes your swordform is a spear, or an axe, or a whip, and you can't make yourself be a sword. And sometimes you are a spear one day and an axe the next, and only you get to decide what that means, no matter how ritualistically invested the rest of your community is in making you one or the other.

This is a story that combines two of my favourite storytelling angles: people growing and learning about themselves even after their youthful bildungsroman era is over, and ordinary people inhabiting huge, complex fantasy worlds who get to have their stories respected and told without needing to overthrow an empire (not that I wouldn't read empire-overthrowing stories in this world, to be fair). It's rich and thoughtful and it hinges on the sort of magic that simply is, with no further questions needed. It's free, it's online, it's very, very good. You should read it.


Reference: Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko, Between Blades, [Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2023]

Posted by: Adri Joy, Nerds of a Feather Senior Co-Editor, @adrijjy on Twitter