By the Sword by F. Paul Wilson
As the explanation for an idiom, let us allow for the world to be an impossibly large place. To lose one object or one person would present you with a haystack worthy of the challenge to find the needle. Even a city the size of New York — a mere 8,274,527 people occupying just under 305 square miles if you believe wikipedia — would make life difficult. So it is that F. Paul Wilson pitches Repairman Jack back into the continuing saga of the Adversary Cycle. This time continuing on from Bloodline, we come into By the Sword (Gauntlet Press, 2008), the title containing a big hint about the number of people likely to die. He still has the need to search for Dawn on his mind and, as is the custom, he picks up a commission to look for a sword. So, as Randy Jackson would say, “Keeping it real, dog!” this would present a serious challenge to the combined forces of New York’s finest, the FBI, Homeland Security and the CIA to deal with the Threat from Beyond. But there is one consistent thread in all Repairman stories. There’s no such thing as coincidence. Put another way, this brings us to the Moirae.
In classical mythology, there were three women who worked together as The Fates. The first, Clotho, spun the thread of life. The second, Lachesis, measured the thread out to each person as their span of life. The third, Atropos, cut the thread of life when it was due to end. The point of this trinity is that fate is an inexorable mistress. They know the span allotted to you and never hesitate to bring death as closure when time has expired. Yet, unlike the word “destiny” which has quite positive connotations, the Fates were seen as remorseless or relentless. This is quite different from the notion of destiny which has more positive connotations. People are always far more positive and hopeful as they work towards their end. Even if they believe their destiny is to die, it is associated with the idea of heroism and this can inspire both actors and their observers to respect the individual. Fate, on the other hand, has a bad reputation. It can play us false and lead us to destruction.
As we have seen from the prequel Secret Histories, Jack’s feet were firmly planted on the path from his youngest years. He is, if you like, genetically predisposed to be a player in the final battles. Thus, as a young man, he is already surrounded by the characters who will play a major role in his adult life. This brings me to a metaphorical moment. A watch has a face with hands or a digital display to mark the passage of time. The mechanism for analogue timepieces has a balance wheel, which as its name suggests, keeps an even balance between equally matched but opposing forces. There is a gear train to produce the driving force for the whole plot of time to be delivered to that point when the spring must be rewound to restart the movement and, for Jack, there must be escapement (for now). Time marches on inexorably and, in a sense, we are forced to go along with it (or perhaps that should be the other way round since it was the humans who thought up the concept of time in the first place). Whatever! We know Jack has to survive until we get to Nightworld, the last book in the cycle. Thus, there is no suspense. No matter what happens, Jack has to survive.
This leaves him and the readers as rather passive observers to the passage of time. Everything that should happen to advance the plot does happen. Dawn and the sword move round like pawns on the writer’s board. Jack gets all the other major factions to fight each other and, for the most part, lets them get on with the serious business of killing each other. It’s all a little perfunctory, including the resolution of what happens to the sword. As Donald Rumsfeld, who was Secretary of Defence in the US, once famously said, “Stuff happens, and it’s untidy. . .” Except that here it’s all a bit too tidy. The mechanism has to deliver us to a particular point so the next volume can carry on, and that’s what it does. It does so as entertainingly as it can. Wilson’s prose is as clean cut as ever, the plot develops at a good pace with some nice quirks, but I feel my interest waning a little. To paraphrase Macbeth, “. . .to be well done, it were better done quickly.” I want to see the whole Adversary Cycle all over. The oeuvre is beautifully envisioned and it deserves to be finished. I just wish I could skim through the rest now and see how all the ‘i’s are dotted and the ‘t’s are crossed. Then I could walk away contented.