Finding Space for the “Literary” in Fantasy: A Reflection on A Woman of the Sword

Finding Space for the “Literary” in Fantasy: A Reflection on A Woman of the Sword

By Eric de Roulet

Readers are inclined to review a novel poorly when it doesn’t deliver what they expect. Sci-fi readers expect speculation about the future and possibly what lies beyond humanity in time and space. Romance readers yearn for a narrative that centers on a romantic relationship and its steamy resolution. High fantasy, too, has its well-known tropes readers eagerly anticipate.  

It’s no surprise, then, that critics and reviewers heaped as many complaints as compliments on Anna Smith Spark’s A Woman of the Sword–a 2023 novel that defies current genre conventions and is a stronger piece of art for it. 

To be fair, there’s plenty in Anna Smith Spark’s A Woman of the Sword that I did expect to find in a fantasy novel: spears and swords aplenty, dragons, and the occasional mage, all set in an ancient secondary world. Without any inside knowledge, A Woman of the Sword looks like it’ll be epic fantasy, albeit with a refreshing twist as it centers on one of the rarest varieties of main characters to be found in fantasy at present: a mother. 

Turning the book’s first several pages, however, is a revelatory experience. Veteran-turned-mother Lidae is a compelling character for her complexity and believable flaws, certainly. But it’s Smith Spark’s lyrical prose and stream-of-consciousness narration that make me feel like I’ve been transported to someplace fascinating and unfamiliar. The majority of reviews I’ve read say something to the effect of “the prose takes getting used to.” However, I find the sometimes disorienting melding of thought with dialogue, present with memory masterfully captures Lidae’s interiority and her experience of surviving and adapting to the ravages of warfare.

And it seems I’m not the only one who feels this way. Dan at Elitist Book Reviews, while rather critical of the novel overall, acknowledges the strength of its prose and gushes over the way Smith Spark immerses us into Lidae’s surroundings and inner world alike. Adrian Collins at Grimdark Magazine describes the narrative as an “incredible, emotional ride of motherhood and soldiering that spans a decade of war and brutal inner turmoil.” All of this praise for a standalone novel released by Luna Press Publishing, a small operation based in Scotland, after Smith Spark’s decidedly grimdark debut trilogy received mixed reviews. 

Yet for a number of other fantasy readers and critics, A Woman of the Sword is too much of an outlier, whether in its plotting, its prose, or its characterization. Goodreads reviews—which should be taken with half a pound of salt but are a decent slice of the general readership’s opinions—are often favorable but include an assortment of grievances. Some find Lidae’s choices as a mother “confusing” or disagreeable, and another says, “we didn’t really get to see how the magic worked for fantastical creatures.” The aforementioned Elitist Book Reviews piece ultimately gives the novel a lukewarm appraisal, seeing Lidae’s motivation and direction as lacking. One Goodreads review claims “the only things that were fantasy about [A Woman of the Sword] were the few mentions of dragons and mages” and that it ought to be labeled as literary fiction instead. 

Why this apparent discrepancy? I don’t think Smith Spark tried and failed to write a fantasy novel. Far from it. 

A Woman of the Sword has numerous hallmarks of high or epic fantasy but offers a more zoomed-in, intimate perspective than is typical for these subgenres. And her style decisions and motifs that some readers find unapproachable are applied consistently throughout the novel. Smith Spark’s unconventional-for-fantasy craft is better understood, then, as resulting from a series of deliberate authorial decisions. The way it’s written is the point. Analyzing Smith Spark’s craft, and reviewers’ reception of it, can reveal something about the deeper structure of fantasy as a genre—or at least the expectations of a critical mass of fantasy readers—and by extension, help us anticipate the genre’s future evolution.

The myriad permutations of so-called “genre” fiction depend on “pre-existing narrative structures,” as Australian novelist Shelley Parker-Chan cogently observes. It’s no accident that some of the most persistent fantasy tropes involve a proactive hero who follows a coming-of-age character arc on their (usually his) quest to save a world whose fate rests in their hands. And these tropes of plot and character, far from being on their way out, are likely to gain cultural inertia thanks to the revolving door between fantasy and the RPG/TTRPG industry. While the Dungeons & Dragons-led TTRPG renaissance features openness to a wider range of characters and some unpredictable storylines steered by players, both D&D and video game franchises such as World of Warcraft, Elder Scrolls, and of course Baldur’s Gate III are defined by their power fantasies of world-saving heroes. That LitRPG has already become a lucrative subgenre within the past ten years or so seems to be evidence of this.

Such fantasy worlds, whether dark or whimsical, glorify an often individualistic agency. The hero may stumble and need someone else to pick them up, but it is normally the sole hero and their quest upon which the fate of their world is balanced. Yet the world of A Woman of the Sword, as vast as it is dark and violent, allows little room for free choice. Although Lidae is rightly praised as a “poet of the sword” by her compatriots, Lidae the foot soldier can only do so much to steer her own course when behind-the-scenes cutthroat politics and unfathomable magical forces decide the outcomes of battles. 

In an episode where she’s been relegated to stay behind with her army’s supply train and look after her children, she’s forced to watch from afar as cavalry charges, dragon’s breath, and explosive spells annihilate masses of foes and compatriots alike. Even still, she wishes she could be out there on the battlefield. We see this in Lidae’s teenage years, too, when an army razes her home city of Raena and kills most of the inhabitants, her family included. She takes up the soldier’s life by joining the invading army through a feat of trickery, a necessity, as a Fantasy Hive article points out, given her alternatives are likely death or enslavement. The deprivation of one’s agency in warfare—women’s agency especially—is a persistent theme in A Woman of the Sword, even if having a main character lack direction is something of a sin in writing mainstream fantasy. 

The current literary scene increasingly puts a premium on character-driven storytelling; conventional wisdom and numerous writing blogs (often full of conventional wisdom) assume that character-driven versus plot-driven storytelling is the defining boundary between “literary” and “genre” fiction. Thus, the fact that the novel’s plot is not particularly driven by Lidae’s “motivation” might be viewed by lit-fic readers as well as genre readers as a weakness. I would argue exactly the opposite: In portraying Lidae as one who’s learned to focus narrowly on survival in the face of awful circumstances that simply happen to her—at times at the expense of a conventional fantasy plot progression—A Woman of the Sword is a radically character-driven story. What remains to be seen is whether fantasy readers will be open to literary experimentation that dispenses with the plot devices many of them are accustomed to, or centers characters who aren’t typically seen as heroic.

The supposed literary-genre dichotomy reaches down to the sentence level in A Woman of the Sword. Brandon Sanderson, one of the most popular fantasy authors of our time, is routinely associated with workmanlike prose that doesn’t stand out. To put it politely, sentences in Sanderson’s novels drive the plot forward instead of dazzling the imagination. In March 2023, Wired published a scathing profile of Sanderson, demeaning his literary voice and highlighting other idiosyncrasies. While the substance of the article included several valid criticisms of Sanderson’s work, the tone of the piece understandably sparked a firestorm of indignation from fans and neutral parties alike against the interviewer. This seems to have further proved the fantasy author’s mass popularity. Even better evidence is Sanderson’s successful self-launch of four novels in 2022 through “the most successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in history.” If Sanderson’s enormous success is any indication, mainstream fantasy may put a premium on setting (“world-building”), magic systems that risk sacrificing wonder for rigor, and (still conventionally heroic) characters. In such novels, prose isn’t art so much as a vehicle for delivering the plot to readers. 

Obviously, no single work of literature can please everyone. But it’s telling that when favorable and critical reviewers alike characterize A Woman of the Sword as “literary,” they are most often referring to Smith Spark’s prose–usually in tandem with descriptions of her stream-of-consciousness narration. In these instances, “literary” seems to be a shorthand for “atypical for fantasy as I see it,” suggesting a shortcoming in much the same way as purveyors of mainly “literary” fiction use the collective label of “genre fiction” to dismiss a piece as formulaic. And while “literary” and “genre” are widely accepted as convenient marketing categories, no single piece in reality will fully adhere to one category or the other. The term “literary” might be more useful as a reference to groundbreaking or experimental writing craft.

Despite what some negative reviews have to say, Smith Spark’s writing decisions at the sentence level can’t reasonably be seen as mistakes (the occasional copyediting error aside). Had her novel been written in the simpler prose popular in mainstream fantasy, it would lack its irreplaceable character. When Lidae again feels forced to choose between her roles as a mother and a warrior, there isn’t a clear divide between her actions and her interiority in the narration, nor even between the first-person and third-person voices:

So easy. Walk through it, walk onwards. Of course I’ll regret it, always. Beautiful babies, my beloveds. But the joy, the freedom, as she stepped forward. Pain in her heart. But a great burden of pain and guilt thrown off away. This world here was glorious.

The usual conventions of narrative perspective and even grammar break down when Lidae navigates internal conflicts or her memories, tragic or nostalgic, intrusively rise to the surface. Stylistic choices like this are no doubt what prompted so many reviewers to describe the novel’s prose as something to “get used to.” But the unconventional approach to narration—while off-putting to people who feel less comfortable adventuring into all the possibilities the written word has to offer—is a critical part of Smith Spark’s masterwork. A Woman of the Sword is more than the simple sequential telling of a story, it’s the ugly interiority of a flawed person who’s conflicted over the violent life she leads and her lack of better alternatives.

As with the novel’s plotting and characterization, it remains to be seen whether there is room for this sort of experimental prose in the future of the fantasy genre. Yet a number of other works straddling the boundary between the literary and the fantastical have been well received—though not always by the readers we might expect.

The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera, a novel incorporating magic, political intrigue, and immigration paperwork, has been described by some Goodreads reviewers as “not for me,” “confusing,” or even “nonsensical.” Despite the criticism, the novel made the New York Times Editors’ Choice list last December, likely for its skillful weaving of seemingly unrelated plot threads and its incisive commentary on colonialism from the author’s Sri Lankan perspective. Other works that have received similar acclaim on the pages of the New York Times and elsewhere include Tobi Ogundiran’s Jackal, Jackal, a collection of dark fantasy tales with intricate, complex plots that readers are left to puzzle through themselves. There’s also Premee Mohamed’s No One Will Come Back for Us and Other Stories, a sci-fi/fantasy/horror collection that flouts what are understood as fundamental rules of good writing, often with spectacular results. 

A pattern that reveals itself in these 2023 releases alone is that fantasy authors can experiment with form and plenty else while still finding acceptance—at least in what are normatively spaces for “literary” fiction. Over time, then, these works may well ease lit-fic readers into reading stories with magical, non-contemporary settings and premises, though these readers may prefer to use a term other than “fantasy.” 

It’s less likely that experimental fantasy will be able to displace Sanderson or the genre authors whose series can usually be found on airport bookstands. There will always be a critical mass of readers who find fulfillment in the formulaic and don’t need literary experimentation in their escapism. And that’s fine. Mainstream fantasy novels clearly do something for mainstream fantasy readers. Why would they get published otherwise? Just as readers like me feel a quiet thrill every time we find fantasy stories about the “wrong” characters told the “wrong” ways. By judging books according to what their authors set out to do, not on how neatly they fit into their respective marketing categories, we can give unique voices like Smith Spark’s a fair chance and see a fuller range of lives and circumstances like Lidae’s reflected in our literature.

Eric de Roulet lives a double life, pursuing an interdisciplinary PhD while writing SFFH fiction and writing about fiction. His former tenure as an English teacher abroad and his amateur history obsession both inform his work, including an article on educational migration in Routed Magazine and a case study of colonial Shanghai in Worldbuilding Magazine. He also blogs on Sad but Building Worlds and can be found on Bluesky ( and Instagram (@ericderoulet), but he’d rather be spending more time outdoors these days.