The Complete Book of Swords

June 12th, 2005

Saberhagen is one of those names I’ve heard and seen on the shelves for years, but have never actually picked up. Perhaps I was wise in my ignorance. It’s not that these books are bad, exactly, so much as they are resoundingly mediocre and don’t live up to the potential of what they could have been.

The story begins with the forging of twelve Swords of power by a God who calls himself Vulcan, and a story of the one man of the twelve who went to aid the God that returned from the task, albeit with his right arm removed. In “payment,” Vulcan gave this simple peasant and former blacksmith one of the Swords, with a prophecy that his eldest son would wield it one day. 15 years later, a tragic sequence of events leads to that man’s son, Mark, fleeing for his life with the Sword in hand, banished from his homeland and hunted by the Duke who ruled over it. Mark soon encounters, in a terribly convenient coincidence, another bearer of a Sword, and they discover that the two Swords have very different powers. This man, Nestor, uses his sword to slay Dragons, and is accompanied by two young assistants, Barbara and Ben. Nestor is soon separated from the three young people, and they proceed onward to the demesne of a powerful but famously kind Knight called Sir Andrew, where unusual sequences of events soon have them socializing with the Knight and his devoted Sorceress.

Meanwhile, Nestor is encountering strange powerful beings and frightening monsters, hoping to regroup with his young friends and Sir Andrew to warn them of an oncoming menace. There’s a climactic three-way battle, and its outcome seems to set up intrigues and power vacuums that could lead to some very interesting story-telling ahead…and that’s where The First Book of Swords ends. The dialogue was never exactly stellar, and the characterization was flat and archetypal at best, but the story has lots of potential.

The Second Book of Swords takes all the potential set up in the first book, rummages through it, and exclaims “Screw it. Let’s all play D&D!” Really…you can all but hear the dice roll, and the GM bitching about how this part of the Module would have made more sense if they’d told them about the magical whoziwhatsit about 20 pages ago. Mark, Ben, and Barbara are reunited several years after the events of the first book, having apparently done nothing of interest in that time. Mark and Ben set off after a hidden cache of gold and Swords, hidden in a mysterious labyrinth and accompanied by magical warriors, wizards, and beastmasters. All that was lacking was a meeting in an Inn with a mysterious stranger. The dungeon crawl proceeds exactly how you might expect, and the book ends. Woo.

The Third Book of Swords shows Saberhagen saying “OK, I’ll write something relevant to the first story, if you really insist.” We’re treated to Gods bickering and politicking, deformed and powerful Dark Kings and Queens, secret romances with Emperors, and the confirmation of something hinted at in the earlier books that seems rather strange…the twelve Swords are not even close to being on the same power level. Some are ridiculously more powerful than others…hugely, insanely powerful. Why this would be…why the Gods thought such an oddly imbalanced and imprecise tool would be useful in their “Game” is left completely un-illuminated. Why the Gods are such complete twits is, likewise, left in the dark. The book ends, tying up most of the loose threads, and yet leaving the reader with very little satisfaction.

Apparently, these books were compelling enough to enough people to warrant many reprintings, a slew of additional sequels, and various omnibus bindings, one of which was given to me. In the “read only what’s recommended to you” ruleset, this book leads to a refinement: “This is heavy and I’m moving, do you want it?” is not exactly a recommendation. I can’t recommend this one to a general audience, but if you’re looking for cheap action and maybe inspiration for your next dungeon slog, I’ve got something heavy…do you want it?

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