Cassandra Clare’s first foray into adult fantasy comes in the form of Sword Catcher, the first book in a planned quartet that follows Kellian, or more affectionately known as Kel, as he is forcefully taken from an orphanage and ceremoniously placed in the jaws of Castellane’s Royal Family. Kel is effectively thrust into a world of duplicity, where he is trained to become the body double of the Crown Prince, and essentially a bodyguard in the same breath, thus becoming the ‘Sword Catcher’. We also follow Lin Caster, a female physician, who is sequestered within a city specifically for the Ashkar, a community looked down upon for their rare magical abilities. Lin’s greatest desire is to cure her closest friend from a seemingly incurable illness, and she is willing to cross the boundaries of magic to do so. Both protagonists are tied to a thread at the hands of the Ragpicker King, the mastermind that runs Castellane’s criminal underworld. Both protagonists are offered allegiance with the Ragpicker King – but at what cost? Sword Catcher is the indulgent introduction to a series bursting at the seams with political intrigue and magical unrest.
The grimdark element to Sword Catcher is subtle, in that the violence and amorality is built into the bricks of Castellane’s foundation. The wealthy reside upon high hills, fervent with their riches and away from the commoners, while the most corrupt of criminals run the streets below. Whilst rolling greens and city streets separate them, their goals are the same: power, money and the thrill of debauchery. The city of Castellane itself is even bordered with a moat, home to crocodiles who are often fed political prisoners and criminals alike. I find that whilst Sword Catcher is not explicit in its categorisation as grimdark, it most certainly borrows aspects of the genre and skilfully threads it into the world building.
Cassandra Clare’s writing has a reminiscence to it. As if those who grew up reading the Shadowhunter Chronicles have been given space to explore the adult fantasy genre in the skin that they have been so comfortable in all these years when following her previous series. Whilst the worlds are vastly different, Clare’s strongpoint across all her work is her characterisations. She has the unique ability of making her readers severely attached to her characters. Kel is a fine young man, and a thrilling protagonist; he is witty, smart and multi-faceted. His struggle with identity takes the centre of his characterisation in this book, as we find he struggles to grasp on to who he truly is and who he is supposed to be. You would expect him to develop a sort of hatred towards the Prince he is to die for, but he is instead fiercely protective of him, which I found quite refreshing. His friendship with Conor falls into the remit of brotherhood (not a theme unfamiliar to Clare), and it is truly one of my highlights of the novel. In a Court of corruption, the love between Kel and Conor is a beam of light. Conor is the most morally lenient of the two; he never truly does anything quite immoral, but he often toes the line. At a Sword Catcher event, Clare stated that ‘loving Kel is Conor’s great humanising quality’, which I think encapsulates Conor’s characterisation well, in that his affection for Kel is what tethers him to the reality of what is expected of him as the Crown Prince. Lin Caster is a fierce character, shunned for what she believes in, a blueprint for many female protagonists in fantasy. This does not make her boring or repetitive; although I do feel as if we have only seen a fraction of her personality in this book. I would have loved to have learned more of her and her Ashkari magic, as the tidbits we are privy to in this book are super fascinating.
Sword Catcher is both dense in size and in world-building, but is never tiresome. Every new detail was fascinating, and fed my understanding of the world. It is important to note that the length of the novel does not give way to a lot of plot. I suspect this was necessary due to the heavy history and politics of Castellane, so that the rest of the series can take off with the right foundations set. This may be off-putting for some readers, but I believe the characters make up for it. I must also note that romance is not the focal point of this novel, which may come as a shock to many, but it is instead an aspect that is alluded to in pockets within the story. Sword Catcher is heavy on the politics, but in a way that I found quite accessible and not convoluted in any way. I warn readers of her previous work to enter with a sort of cautious optimism, as you will find it is not as explosive and fast-paced as her other works, but it is certainly an enjoyable change of pace.
I could not write this review without mentioning how brilliantly detailed Clare has written out this world. Her depictions of various settings, from the courtyards to the ballrooms to the street markets is truly brilliant – you can almost see, smell and taste Castellane. My personal favourite descriptions have to be the ones of Conor’s attire, which were never short of spectacular at all times!
If you are looking for a fast-paced fantasy, rife with twists and turns, then this is not the book for you. However, if you’re in the mood for a solid first book in a series, spanning the themes of a classic fantasy: political intrigue, magic, secrets and conspiracies, then I highly suggest indulging in Cassandra Clare’s Sword Catcher.