Just finished the First Book of Swords and it blew me away. I experienced one of those moments as a fantasy reader where I grew depressed that I hadn’t read the book sooner.
Saberhagen is a virtuoso. He plucks some of the typical fantasy trope strings as the story rolls along – “oh look, a young boy on a quest” – but just when you think you’ve got the melody figured out, he takes you in a wholly new different melodic direction – “the goal you thought the boy was setting out to achieve isn’t what you think it is.” Saberhagen plays with ambiguity. A pantheon of Greek-ish gods are involved. Vulcan, for example, crafts the twelve swords that bedevil the characters in this book. But the gods seem to be playing games. And other, older, deities get involved who feel compassion for the humans caught up in, what can best be termed, heaven-induced shenanigans.
Let me sprinkle out a little dusting of the plot. Mark is the “boy with the goal.” He’s from a remote village. His father (really his cuckold father but only Mark’s mother knows this) has a magic sword he helped the god Vulcan make years before. The powers-that-be want that sword, and the book opens with a battle royal, where the sword falls into the hands of Mark’s older brother, who dies in the melee. Mark takes up the sword and escapes the village. So far, so normal fantasy fiction, right?
Not quite. Here’s what I like about the book, and it starts right from the get go. The swords are not above killing the people who wield them. Think the One Ring from Lord of the Rings combined with Excalibur. They have minds of their own, and they are using their “owners” far more than the owners are using them. Actually, it makes me think about the joke with cat “owners.” The cats actually think they’re in charge. Same thing with the swords.
Saberhagen also keeps the happenings happening. This is not a book for lollygagging. Mark no sooner sets out on his own, then the powerful local duke (who might or might not be his father) is after the sword. His agents trap Mark and he’s only saved by a roving band of dragon hunters who have a magical sword of their own that specializes in, you guessed it, slaying dragons. It’s all fun, and the characters are grounded in reality.
Also, unlike some of the other serious fantasy writers out there, Saberhagen isn’t scared to include some humor. There’s a bit about a nobleman wanting to convert prisoners by educating them that is very deftly handled. His is a doomed mission (the prisoner betrays him as soon as he escapes) but the nobleman thinks its a worthy cause no matter what. And that endears you to him even as you chuckle at his futility.
I mentioned the book isn’t like others. Part of that is the quest being skewed. The other part is the final battle sequence. The good guys lose (they get trounced actually) and the main characters limp away in the dark to fight another day. You don’t hate them for it. Far from it. There was nothing they could do. But definitely isn’t the main character striding out in a sword and sandals fantasy to slay the hordes by the…horde.
So, I say, give it a read, give it a chance. I loved it. Maximum stars. I’ve already moved on to the second book and I’m a confirmed Saberhagen fan.