Sword Catcher by Cassandra Clare may be her best novel yet


Sword Catcher is the first adult novel by Cassandra Clare. After almost two decades of urban fantasy Shadowhunters novels (and other teen and young adult stories), Clare is finally trying out a new genre more akin to epic and high fantasy with Sword Catcher.

It’s the story of an orphan whose life is stolen in service to the royal family. They must act as a body double to the crown prince, to protect him and die in his place, if need be. Kel and Prince Conor’s relationship is a tangle of love, understanding, and a hint of resentment. Sword Catcher  is also the story of a singularly gifted healer whom society won’t let become a physician because of her gender. Only Lin may have the key to more than just curative remedies within her. Many other characters frame the action, from nobles to common folk to criminals, all of it taking place in a fictional city state that seems to come alive with vivid descriptions.

This novel is a breath of fresh air. It has all the things we love about Cassandra Clare’s writing but none of the elements that had started to drag down her Shadowhunters series. It took Clare years to build the world of Sword Catcher. George R.R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice And Fire, wrote in his review that, “SWORD CATCHER gave me everything I look for in fantasy: mystery and magic (not too much, not too little), expert worldbuilding, swordplay and politics, a colorful cast of interesting characters, and a story that kept me reading from the first page to the last, with enough twists and turns to keep me turning the pages. It’s a big thick book, but it left me wanting more.”

George R.R. Martin recommends Sword Catcher by Cassandra Clare

I for one must agree with Martin on every point. Clare’s first high fantasy novel is set a wonderfully built world that’s introduced bit by bit, something fantasy often forgets to do. Moreover, Sword Catcher finds a triumphant balance between plot and character, but more on that later.

Sword Catcher is certainly not a quick read; it took me weeks to finish it, but I stayed interested throughout. I advise all readers to enjoy the book by taking it slow: savor it, take time off after each chapter, allow yourself to fantasize about what might come next. If you read it all in one go, I wonder how much you’ll remember of this new world and characters after binging 600 pages.

I allowed the book to surprise me, to subvert the expectations I had built. For the first time in many years, I was not sure where a Cassandra Clare book would lead me, so used as I am to her style and patterns. It felt refreshing. It was thrilling.

Review: Sword Catcher by Cassandra Clare

The plot of this book is linear but unexpected; in the beginning it could feel slow to readers who may be used to a lot of action early on, but I appreciated keeping the stakes low as I learned about the world and the cast of characters in Castellane and beyond.

The first book barely scratched the surface of the story. So much conflict has just barely been hinted at. What we see at the end of the first book is clearly just the beginning of a war that could very well bring House Aurelian to its knees.

The characters in Sword Catcher are vibrant. Their relationships are well-crafted to a degree rarely seen in YA/NA books nowadays. The book is narrated through the points of view of two characters: the eponymous sword catcher Kel Saren and Lin Caster, an Ashkari physician. The other main characters, including Prince Conor Aurelian, are seen through Kel and Lin’s eyes, so we get their biased perspectives. It’s clear to see there is more than meets the eyes to most of them, but only time will reveal their true colors.

Like many high fantasy series, Sword Catcher may feel like it’s set in medieval Europe, but it’s not that easy to pinpoint. On one hand you have the systemic misogyny and the historically realistic segregation of a religious minority, on the other you have the utopian widespread acceptance of sexual freedom, with queerness being normalized without question even in the royal family. Diversity may seem welcome but Clare did not set out to create a perfect fairy tale world; she built one that is different from ours and yet similar at the core. Like us, Castellani hate what they don’t understand.

Sword Catcher represents a new horizon for Cassandra Clare

I can definitely see influences from Martin’s own A Song of Ice and Fire series (whose editor Anne Groell also worked on Sword Catcher) in the politics of Castellane. You see it in the scheming of nobles and the indifference of the common folk. In the underworld of Castellane I found hints of Ketterdam from Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, and even a glimpse of Rifthold from the early Throne of Glass books by Sarah J. Maas. Yet Sword Catcher feels wholly original, and while I could recognize the things I love about Clare’s writing in it, it’s completely new. For the first time in years with her novels, I truly wasn’t sure where the book would take me or how it would end. I long for its sequel, and I hope Clare continues on this road.

The second book in the series, The Ragpicker King, doesn’t have a confirmed publication date yet, but we know the series will have at least three books. Sword Catcher comes out on October 10, 2023.

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