Every once in a while, I read a book and — the moment I’ve finish the last page — I know the novel’s perfect poem. That’s what happened with my good friend Kathy MacMillan’s YA fantasy SWORD AND VERSE.
Kathy and I, along with debut authors Ava Jae and Janet Sumner Johnson, did a mini book-tour together in March, covering several bookstores and libraries in Maryland and Virginia. For fun, each one of us brought a talisman to events — a small object that represented something about our books.
My object was a little plushie hamster. It is named for Refried Beans, the hamster that belongs to one of the characters in THE LAST FIFTH GRADE. Kathy talisman was a clay bird made by her son. She used the bird to explain an important setting in her novel.
SWORD AND VERSE is the story of Raisa, who was forced into slavery as a child and taken to the kingdom of Qilara. Qilarite religious traditions dictate that only those in power may read and write. There is one exception: a slave girl, who is trained in the complicated Qilarite language alongside the crown prince so that she may one day be tutor to his heir. As a teen, Raisa is selected to replace Prince Mati’s tutor, who has been executed for treason. Raisa finds herself falling in love with Mati, but she also begins to wonder whether her new role as Tutor in Training gives her the power to help other slaves.
Birds are part of a crucial setting in the novel. Raisa and Mati learn to read and write in a walled courtyard. There are special birds in the courtyard whose tail feathers are used as writing quills. Raisa notes that the birds are caged as babies, but their cages are gradually removed. By the time the birds are adults, their training is so ingrained that no cage is necessary. The birds don’t realize that they are free.
SWORD AND VERSE published in January. Here is the blurb from Goodreads:
Raisa was only a child when she was kidnapped and enslaved in Qilara. Forced to serve in the palace of the King, she’s endured hunger, abuse, and the harrowing fear of discovery. Everyone knows that Raisa is Arnath, but not that she is a Learned One, a part of an Arnath group educated in higher order symbols. In Qilara, this language is so fiercely protected that only the King, the Prince, and Tutors are allowed to know it. So when the current Tutor-in-training is executed for sharing the guarded language with slaves and Raisa is chosen to replace her, Raisa knows that, although she may have a privileged position among slaves, any slipup could mean death.
That would be challenging enough, but training alongside Prince Mati could be her real undoing. And when a romance blossoms between them, she’s suddenly filled with a dangerous hope for something she never before thought possible: more. Then she’s approached by the Resistance—an underground army of slaves—to help liberate the Arnath people. Joining the Resistance could mean freeing her people…but she’d also be aiding in the war against her beloved, an honorable man she knows wants to help the slaves.
Working against the one she loves—and a palace full of deadly political renegades—has some heady consequences. As Raisa struggles with what’s right, she unwittingly uncovers a secret that the Qilarites have long since buried…one that, unlocked, could bring the current world order to its knees.
And Raisa is the one holding the key.
Recommended for eighth grade and up.
Who will like it?
- Readers who love epic fantasy novels.
- Fans of libraries, reading, and writing.
- Die-hard romantics.
What will readers learn about?
- How a person who is accustomed to being controlled by others can begin making his or her own decisions.
- The ways that language and power intersect to define a culture.
- The effects of living in a controlled society.
With all I’ve said about caged birds, I hope you have figured out which poem I’m pairing with SWORD AND VERSE.
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
GENESIS GIRL, by Jennifer Bardsley (4/13/16)
TREASURE AT LURE LAKE, by Shari Schwarz (3/31/16)
THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURE OF THE PB&J SOCIETY, by Janet Sumner Johnson (3/25/16)
THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE, by Heidi Heilig (3/10/16)
THE DISTANCE FROM A TO Z, by Natalie Blitt (1/19/16)
COUNTING THYME, by Melanie Conklin (12/31/15)
FENWAY AND HATTIE, by Victoria J. Coe (12/24/15)
THE REMARKABLE JOURNEY OF CHARLIE PRICE, by Jen Maschari (12/3/15)
PAPER WISHES, by Lois Sepahban (11/19/15)
THE GIRL WHO FELL, by S. M. Parker (11/5/15)
SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN, by Jeff Garvin (10/29/15)
SHALLOW GRAVES, by Kali Wallace (10/1/15)
MY SEVENTH GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS, by Brooks Benjamin (7/22/15)