Book Reviews

 

Sample Book Review: Sword Woman

Dark Agnes de Chastillon is a character in the short story Sword Woman by Robert E. Howard.

Here is my sample book review, written in question and answer format.

For this review, I chose one of my favorite short stories: Sword Woman by Robert E. Howard. The sentences highlighted in yellow are sidenotes. (They're not actually part of the review).

 

Book Review

What is the title of the book that you're reviewing?

Sword Woman

Are you reviewing the entire book, or just some portion of the book?

For this question, give me some sense of the size of the book and how much of it you have read. Also, tell me whether you're reviewing the whole thing, or just some shorter portion of the story.

Sword Woman is a short story of 65 pages. I'm reviewing the entire story.

Who is the author?

Robert E. Howard

What is the literary genre?

historical adventure

Here is a list of literary genres.

What is the narrative point of view?

1st Person POV

What does the cover blurb say?

For this question, all you need to do is to copy the cover blurb. Yes! Just copy the words on the back cover (or on the inside of the book jacket). It's an easy way to earn points! But please, put the cover blurb within quotations marks, to make it clear that you are not the person who wrote these words.

"Agnes de Chastillon: proud, beautiful, her flaming red hair cascading onto her shoulders, had no other recourse than to stab her vile betrothed, Francois, who her callous father meant to impose upon her. With blood gushing from heart and mouth, Francois lay dying on the ground of the pigstye village that could be Agnes' home no more. Hunted by her maddened father, Agnes is compelled to flee and find refuge among the only kind that will accept her: Cutthroats, villains, and the likes of Etienenne Villiers, a disreputable rogue who attempts to sell Agnes into slavery . . . "

What is the setting?

The narrator never tells us the setting explicitly, but nonetheless, it's easy enough to figure out that the story takes place in France, sometime in the late Middle Ages.

I inferred that the story takes place in the late Middle Ages because people use horses for transportation, and they fight using swords, daggers, and pistols.

Furthermore, the "voice" of the narrator is very old-fashioned, almost literary. And the characters use words like "serving wench" which suggest a bygone era.

I inferred that the story takes place in France, because Agnes' father tells her that the man she is to marry is "as fine a young man as you can find in all of Normandy". (Normandy is a province in the north of France).

Furthermore, the names of all the characters and towns sound French.

Who is the protagonist?

Her name is Agnes de Chastillon. She is a fierce young woman from a poor family who is being forced to marry someone she does not like.

What does the protagonist want?

She wants to escape the marriage arranged by her father, and she dreams of living a life of adventure, perhaps as a soldier.

Who is the antagonist?

There are many men who stand between Agnes and her goals:

Agnes' father wants to punish her for running away from home (not to mention the fact that she's murdered her fiance).

Etienne Villiers, a "disreputable rogue", attempts to sell Agnes into slavery. Later, he proves to be a friend.

Thibault is the man who buys Agnes and plans to resell her for a profit.

Tristan Pelligny is a ruffian who blames Etienne for the death of Thibault.

Meanwhile, the Duke of Alencon is hunting Etienne because Etienne knows too much about some shady stuff that the Duke has done in the past.

Summarize the plot.

The story starts on the day that Agnes is supposed to get married to a "fat pig" called Francoise. She refuses, and her father clobbers her on the head, knocking her unconscious.

When Agnes wakes up, she's all tied up. Her sister comes in and gives her a dagger, and she suggests that Agnes should commit suicide instead of enduring a marriage to a such a horrible man as Francois. Agnes slips the dagger into her bosom.

The men come in and drag Agnes out to the wedding. As the priest is about to start the ceremony, Agnes stabs Francoise with her dagger and then runs away into the forest. Her father chases her, but Agnes gets away.

Agnes spends the night in the forest. The next morning, she finds a road and begins to follow it. At a bend in the road, she encounters a man on horseback. The man introduces himself as Etienne Villier, but then he immediately seems to regret giving her his name. Agnes suspects that he's some sort of outlaw. Nonetheless, Etienne does possess a certain charm.

When Etienne learns that Agnes is running away from her father, he suggests that she should disguise herself as a boy. To help her, Etienne rides back the way he came, returning a short time later with a bundle of clothes. It's obvious that he has robbed a peasant boy.

"Did you slay him?" asks Agnes.

"Not I!" laughs Etienne. "I but sent him on his way naked as Adam. Here, wench, go into yonder copse and don these garments hastily. We must be on our way, and it's many a league to Chartres."

Agnes changes clothes and accepts a ride on the back of Etienne's horse.

That evening they reach an inn, and Etienne gets a room for the night. Agnes notices a fat man who seems to recognize Etienne, but Etienne pretends that they don't know each other. The fat man is called Thibault.

That night, Agnes wakes to the sound of stealthy footsteps inside the room. She calles out Etienne's name, thinking it's him, but the intruder leaves. A short time later, Agnes sees the inkeeper galloping away from the inn. Agnes assumes that the inkeeper is planning to tell her father of her whereabouts. However, it later turns out that the inkeeper has recognized Etienne, and he's planning to betray Etienne's whereabouts to the Duke of Alencon.

Agnes leaves the room and overhears a conversation between Etienne and the fat man called Thibault (the man whom Etienne had pretended not to recognize). It soon becomes apparent that Etienne is offering to sell Agnes to Thibault.

Thibault is hesitant to make a deal. He says, "I've seen prettier in Paris, aye, and in Chartres, too." The implication is that he doesn't think Agnes is worth much.

Etienne responds: "Pretty! The girl's more than pretty. There's something wild and untameable about her. Something fresh and vital, I tell you. Any worn-out noble would pay high for her . . . Give me the price I ask, and she is yours . . . If you cannot make a pretty profit of her in Chartres, or in Orleans, or in Paris, you are greater fool than I am."

Thibault finally agrees to the price. In a rage, Agnes springs into the room, stabs Thibault, and then beats Etienne within an inch of his life.

Etienne begs for mercy, and Agnes decides to let him live. In fact, she now decides to save his life (because she feels partly responsible for betraying his true identity to the inkeeper). She helps Etienne onto his horse, and they ride all night, reaching a tavern at dawn.

The tavern is owned by a friend of Etienne. The friend is called Perducas. Perducas gives them each a room, and Perducas bandages Etienne up. A week passes, as Etienne heals from his wounds.

While waiting for Etienne to heal, Agnes meets a man called Guiscard de Clisson, a leader of a mercenary group called the Free Companions. Agnes asks him if she can join his band of soldiers, but he laughs at her. Agnes feels insulted and she resents the fact that men always expect women to stay in their "proper place."

That evening, Agnes is talking to Etienne, who is still in bed, when she hears some feet on the stairs. It's a band of ruffians who have come to get revenge for the death of Thibault. They have assumed that it was Etienne who killed Thibault, when actually it was Agnes. When Agnes tells them the truth, they don't believe her. A fight ensues. Grabbing Etienne's sword, Agnes kills all three ruffians in short order. Just then, Guisscard de Clisson bursts into the room, and he is astonished to see what Agnes has done. He invites her to join the Free Companions. "Would you still march with me?" he asks.

"As a companion-in-arms," she answers. "I'm mistress to none."

A week later, Agnes rides away with Guiscard de Clisson. It's been a busy week for Agnes. Guiscard has bought her a sword and some pistols, and he's been training her how to use them. As they ride away, Etienne seems distraught. Clearly, he's sad to see that she's leaving, and he can't believe that she was planning to leave without even saying goodbye.

Agnes and Guiscard are following a road through the forest, when suddenly a volley of shots ring out, and Guiscard falls from his horse, dead. Agnes' horse bolts through the woods and Agnes is knocked from her saddle.

It turns out that they have been ambused by some men sent by the Duke of Alencon. They killed Guiscard because they mistakenly believed that he was Etienne. Now they are hunting Agnes, as she is a witness to the murder.

We have now arrived at the climax of the story. Agnes is cornered in a steep ravine, while the Duke's men close in on her. Her plight appears hopeless. Just then, someone lowers a rope from the top of the cliff. It's Etienne.

Etienne, it seems, had not been willing to say goodbye so easily. He followed Agnes and Guiscard on his own horse. Upon hearing gunshots, he dismounted and approached stealthily, and upon seeing Guiscard's dead body, he pieced together what had happened. He has arrived at the top of the cliff just in time to save Agnes.

Agnes asks, "Why did you follow me?"

Etienne answers: "You were wrong when you said no debt lay between us. I owe you my life. It was for me that you fought and slew Tristan Pelligny and his thieves. Why cling to your old hatred of me? You have well avenged a plotted wrong. You accepted Guiscard de Clisson as comrade. Will you not let me ride to the wars with you?"

Agnes agrees, and they laugh at the fact that once again they must ride on the same horse. There is still danger all around, but they cheerfully ride away toward some new adventures.

What did you find interesting about this story?

I like the fact that Agnes is a total badass. I mean, in most historical novels, women fight with their wits, instead of guns and swords. But Agnes is different; she is physically strong; she loves to fight, and she's good at it. She's also pretty ruthless.

Think about it: In the course of a 65-page short story:

  • Agnes murders Fransoice, her fiance. (Granted, she never agreed to the marriage).
  • She murders Thibault, the man who tries to buy her from Etienne.
  • She beats Etienne within an inch of his life, for daring to try to sell her to Thibault.
  • She kills Tristan Pelligny and four other "ruffians" when they burst into Etienne's chamber, seeking revenge for the death of Thibault.
  • She kills at least three of the men who ambushed her and Guisscard de Clisson.

That's 10 men she's killed, in only 64 pages! And yet, it's easy for the reader to admire her, because she's fierce and independent and she refuses to accept the role of a subservient daughter or wife.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add?

Robert E. Howard is one of my favorite authors. He is most famous for his sword-and-sorcery fantasy books, but I like his historical adventure stories the best. I think they are actually quite realistic. Sword Woman is a good example. There is nothing in this story that is particularly unbelievable. I know that it's fiction, but everything could have happened, and that makes it easier for me to get into the story.

Did you learn any new vocabulary words? (Include the definitions).

Saracen = an Arab or Muslim, especially at the time of the Crusades.

"He told me that he had learned his art from the hakims of the Saracens, among whom he had traveled in his youth."

tripe = 1) the first or second stomach of a cow or other ruminant used as food. 2) nonsense; rubbish.

"Ha, by the tripe and blood of Judas, you guzzle like a man!"

What is your favorite quote from the book?

I think the last line of the story is pretty cool. As Agnes and Etienne ride away together, he says, "I think there are brave times ahead of us, adventures and wars and plunder! Then hey for Italy, and all brave adventurers!"

That line sums up the happy ending. They're on their way to Italy, as companions-in-arms, not lovers. Nonetheless, I like to think that there's still a possibility of romance in the future. And I think it's funny that they're planning to join an army. Any army. They're not fighting for a cause, or principle, or duty. No, they just want to loot towns and get rich, or die trying. They're not exactly heroic characters, but that's what makes them so much fun. They're just a couple of brave adventurers, riding away together toward their next adventure.

 

Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.

Quiz