I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. And how could I resist requesting a book with such a beautiful cover?!
“Poetry is hard, hard work. You have to pull out the truth of your heart and lay them out for the world to see. Sometimes, that means something to someone, and they so. Sometimes, it coems off as a gooey, sappy, love sick puppy with about as mich in common with poetry as a Chihuahua and an elephant. And people say terrible things about art. It’s a risk”.
“Words are purer – freer like this, as if freshly cast from the forge of the gods. My words can dance through the air, and you will have to find the meaning of them without my face to hint. Time enough for faces on some other night, but here, in the gathering dark, let me be the candle against the light”.
“You know who doesn’t mind how many hands I have? Books. So I read. And I read, and I read, and I read. Books don’t judge. They don’t mock. They don’t knowingly smile like Mona Lisa when they see me, knowing that my life is “harder” yet pretending to treat me like everyone else. Books don’t have to pretend: they are the same to everyone”.
Cyra Berque’s dreams include being an Olympic fencer and a girlfriend to the handsome Rochan. The first is something she’s worked for her entire life, and, despite the fact that she only has one hand, she’s almost there. The second is unfortunately presenting some problems in the form of mean girls who love to mock Cyra for her disability, and the new girl in school – ethereal, whimsical ballerina Christine. Christine whose rich father hired Cyra as a tutor, and who is a lot more interested in winning Rochan’s heart than she is at passing AP English. For Cyra, pen is just as mighty as the sword, so she reluctantly agrees to help Christine get the guy by using her talents as a poetess in exchange for money for the new coach who could make her Olympics dream come true. However, juggling all of that is difficult enough when you’re a conventionally attractive, able-bodied high school student, and it’s nearly impossible when you are someone who is plus-sized and only has one hand. Can Cyra come to grips with her changing reality or will she have to bear witness to her dreams crashing and burning?
“Of Pens and Swords”‘ description grabbed me as much as the beautiful cover art did. That is because I am a writer, and I was a fencer back in university (foil). I still fondly look back on the days where my evenings twice a week consisted of footwork and various en gardes, and I do hope that at some point in the future, I’ll pick up a foil again. I never stopped being a writer though, and “Of Pens and Swords” felt like a love letter to two of my greatest loves. And it’s not just because words and swords are two big subject matters – it’s also the way the book is written. The amount of details paints an amazing picture of what fencing is actually like without being overwhelming or dull (for me, anyway), and the reader can genuinely feel how much Cyra loves the foil, and later the epee. Words are a whole other matter – the author managed to make a simple “plucky girl helps hot girl get hot guy” plot into something intricate and romantic. The words Cyra wrote for Christine to give to Rochan are beautiful, full of emotion, and the ending of that story makes them even more so.
Writing and reading, and later fencing, have been my ways to cope with things for a very long time. Thankfully, nothing as horrible as what had happened to Cyra has ever happened to me, but I could certainly relate to how she felt about books – “You can have a meaningful relationship with a character from a book. I mean really? You have all the emotions of the relationship. You feel joy when they succeed. You mourn when they die. You have a relationship with them. It might not be as deep or as rich as real life. And let’s be clear: real life is messy. But book characters are every bit as important as real-life people”. I didn’t start fencing until I was 19, but if a sixteen-year-old Kate had had a book like “Of Pens and Swords”, she might have gotten into it a lot earlier. Cyra puts into words really well a lot of things I love about fencing – for example: “But with fencing, it didn’t matter. A rating from a girl counted the same as a rating from a boy, and the rating handed out at the end of the competition was dependent on how many fencers showed up. It was one of the few actually equal venues. No one cared if there were women in the mix. The more rated fencers, the higher the rating could be given out at the end of the day”.
The characters in this were mostly high school students, and Cyra was primarily at the center. She is not perfect – she does engage in quite a bit of girl-on-girl hate and passing judgment without getting to know the person – but that makes her all the more real. I am always happy to see representation of diverse characters when they are written like real people and not like perfect, idealised tokens. Cyra’s struggles are very, very real, experienced by many people today, and the author doesn’t gloss over them. Of course, this is a short novella and it is not perfect when it comes to disability representation – but books like “Of Pens and Swords” are needed.
I genuinely enjoyed this little novella, and experienced quite a few moments of fangirling during the fencing scenes. Definitely recommend it!
You might like “Of Pens and Swords” if you liked:
“Bookishly Ever After” by Isabel Bandeira
“Now You See Her” by Jacquelyn Mitchard
“Dreaming of Antigone” by Robin Bridges
Have you read “Of Pens and Swords”? Do you like fencing? Do let me know in the comments! 🙂