According to All Romance Ebooks, this book is 135,013 words long, which came out to 346 pages on my Nook.
At the start of the book, Talon and her sisters are working for a group of traveling entertainers. Lyris and Bria sing, while Talon is an acrobat. All three girls were orphaned when barbarians came and killed their parents. Since then, Talon has pretended to be a boy in order to protect her sisters. The only ones who know her true gender are Lyris and Bria.
Talon and her sisters are performing for the royal family when an assassin kills Crown Prince Daric. Talon pushes Lyris out of the assassin's path and inadvertently saves Princess Shasta's life. King Soltran finds out that Talon is a girl and decides she would make a perfect bodyguard for Shasta - he figures there would be no chance of improper behavior.
Time passes, with Bria and Lyris acting as Shasta's maids and companions and Talon acting as Shasta's bodyguard. Talon realizes, to her shock, that she's attracted to other women. Shasta, for her part, has no idea that Talon is a woman and eventually develops a crush on her guardian. Things aren't completely relaxed in the kingdom, however - the assassin who killed Daric is still on the loose, and Shasta may still be in danger.
This was one of two books I purchased when I decided I wanted to give Bold Strokes Books' f/f fiction a shot. Sword of the Guardian was my first choice – when I read that it starred a princess and her cross-dressing guardian, I knew I had to have it. It was a surprise to me that I enjoyed Jane Fletcher's Rangers at Roadsend as much as I did, and I fully expected to enjoy Shannon's Sword of the Guardian even more. Unfortunately, Sword of the Guardian turned out to be a disappointment.
My biggest problem with this book was that I could not believe in the world and its characters. Little things kept throwing me out of the story. For example, only a small number of people knew Talon's gender, and King Soltran specifically chose Talon to be Shasta's guardian because he felt he wouldn't have to worry about her virtue if she was being guarded by a woman. It was common knowledge that Talon even slept in Shasta's room, and Talon and Shasta sometimes went off, alone and unescorted, to practice fencing together. I would have expected more than just the King to be concerned with Shasta's virtue, and yet no one in court ever commented about the impropriety of a man spending so much unescorted time with the princess, even after Shasta began publicly flirting with Talon.
Lots of other things bugged me in this book. When Talon unwrapped her breasts, she had to “accustom her brain to the sudden rush of oxygen” (44) – there was no mention of relief from the discomfort of having her breasts squashed into invisibility. At another point, Talon and Shasta kissed, not long after Shasta threw up. Shasta “tasted of tea and a lingering hint of wine” (113) – no mention of vomit. I couldn't figure out whether homosexual relationships were accepted in this world or not – Talon's reaction indicated that maybe they weren't, but, when Bria found out about Talon and Shasta's relationship, she shrugged off her shock extremely quickly and was soon saying “well, as long as you're happy.”
By the way, absolutely no one who knew Talon's real gender made any mention of concerns about how Shasta was supposed to produce an heir if she and Talon remained a couple – Shannon wrapped this up neatly in the end (a little too neatly for my liking), but I had that question going through my head from the moment Talon and Shasta became a couple. I couldn't understand why not one person wondered what Shasta planned to do. Also, characters occasionally said things that, to my mind, would have fit better in a contemporary-set novel, rather than in a novel set in a pseudo-historical past – yes, this is a fantasy story, and characters can technically speak however the author wishes them to speak, but those moments just added to the list of things that threw me out of the story.
For much of the beginning of the book, I figured that Talon knew she was a lesbian (or perhaps bisexual) and was comfortable with this. I think I got that impression from the way she easily flirted with female audience members during acrobatic performances. I was surprised and confused when Talon started wondering whether it was even possible for one woman to be attracted to another.
I'm still not sure whether this book is better defined as a lesbian romance or as a transgender romance. When Shasta finally learns that Talon is female and sees her unclothed, she marvels at how beautiful she is. Just about everything in the book, however, seemed geared towards making Talon seem as masculine as possible. She didn't just say things – she growled them. She fought better and learned fighting techniques and strategy faster than any other man around. In my head, Talon was either a man who was ludicrously masculine, or a woman trying too hard to be a man.
I didn't really like or dislike Talon, but Shasta came across as a spoiled brat throughout most of the book. I suppose her concern for her whipping boy and the woman she witnessed get beaten to death was meant to make me decide she wasn't all that bad, but it didn't work. If injustices weren't happening right before her eyes, she didn't seem to think of them. Instead of avoiding doing things that would get her whipping boy hurt, she did them anyway and then gave him treats afterward to make it all better. When she got upset with Talon, she rode off in a snit, knowing that there were people around who might want to kill her. As a result, she almost got herself killed, and Talon was seriously wounded.
When Shasta found out Talon's true gender, she felt betrayed – that was understandable, but what was not was her thought that Talon should be executed for treason. She knew that Talon had only been following the King's orders. Thinking that Talon should be executed for that, just because she didn't like the results and was upset that the man she'd fallen for was actually a woman was just...wow, I feel enraged even thinking about it now. Later on in the book, she suddenly morphed into a mature, wise leader (who convinced farmers to part with their entire crop, offering them nothing more than an IOU she couldn't guarantee she'd be able to pay, but whatever). It didn't matter. All I could ever see her as was a selfish little girl who never seemed to understand how much danger she, and by association Talon, was in.
Bria was a moron, somehow thinking that an aristocrat would find her, a nobody, to be a more worthy wife than Princess Shasta. Lyris seemed to only exist as a convenient way to tie the Ithyrian priestesses more firmly into the story, so that they could swoop in when needed and save everyone with the Super Convenient Power of the Goddess. You know, except for the moment when it's decided that it's important for Talon to fight her battle on her own, lest the Power of the Goddess remove all suspense from the story and end things too soon.
I should also mention Erinda. She was one of the reasons why this book wasn't able to work for me as a romance. Prior to Shasta and Talon becoming a couple, Talon had lots of no-strings-attached sex with Erinda. In fact, it was spotting Talon having sex with Erinda that inspired Shasta's crush on Talon. I was never quite comfortable with this, even though Talon and Erinda's relationship ended before Talon and Shasta became a couple.
All in all, this book was not nearly as good as I had hoped it would be. Shannon has one other work published through Bold Strokes Book, Branded Ann, a pirate romance that sounds like it could be a lot of fun. However, I don't see myself taking another chance with this author at the prices that Bold Strokes Books charges.
Sword of the Guardian had some confusing formatting. For example, some of the chapters began with stuff from the perspective of one of the Ithyrian priestesses. Then, with no visual cues whatsoever, the story switched back to third person, following the actions of Talon and Shasta. It was a little jarring.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Rangers at Roadsend (e-book) by Jane Fletcher - Aspects of the world in Sword of the Guardian made me think of Rangers at Roadsend, another f/f fantasy. It's part of Fletcher's Celaeno series, which is set in an all-female world that has soldiers and priestesses. I have written about this book.
- Lady Knight (e-book) by L.J. Baker - Another f/f romance with a historical (pseudo-historical?) setting and a bit of fantasy.
- Arrows of the Queen (book) by Mercedes Lackey - If you'd like another fantasy set in a pseudo-historical world and featuring a bit of romance, you might want to try this. The romance in this series is usually m/f, although the subseries that begins with this book features a few lesbian minor characters.
- The Measure of a Lady (book) by Deeanne Gist - This is Christian m/f historical romance, set in 19th century San Francisco. Those who enjoyed the sibling relationships in Sword of the Guardian, particularly the relationship between Bria and Talon, might want to give this a try. One of the characters, Lissa, is quite a bit like Bria. I have written about this book.
- Sungkyunkwan Scandal (live action TV series) - This Korean series has a cross-dressing heroine, romance, action, and political scheming. I have written about it.
- Alanna: The First Adventure (book) by Tamora Pierce - Another fantasy with a pseudo-historical setting, a cross-dressing heroine, and a bit of (m/f) romance. Alanna pretends to be her brother in order to follow her dream of becoming a knight.