Saberhagen’s First Book of Swords

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.

Inferno – Mike Resnick

A quick book review for you of Mike Resnick’s lightning-quick read, Inferno. In a nutshell, this book functions as a ringing endorsement of Star Trek’s prime directive, where you’re not supposed to interfere with an alien species. Personally, I never really got the “prime directive.” Why are Kirk, Picard, and the rest of the capitans tooling around the universe exploring, boldly going, if they’re never supposed to get involved. I guess it created tension for the series. Continue reading “Inferno – Mike Resnick”

Reviews: Suldrun’s Garden and The Demon Princes

Talk about hidden treasures! In the last few months I’ve read two works by the late great Jack Vance. These are the kind of books I kick myself for reading – because I haven’t read them sooner.

Let’s start off with some general discussion about the author. This is a guy who knows how to be spare when he needs to be spare, florid when he needs to be florid. He knows how much characterization someone needs and how the character is serving the story’s purpose. I mean, someone who writes, there are moments when you’re reading Vance and you think – ok, this is how it’s done. This is what I should be striving for. He’s so deft. He can build a world in a page and half and it is as real as anything the fantasy writers take pages and pages to develop. But let’s get to the specifics. Continue reading “Reviews: Suldrun’s Garden and The Demon Princes”

Pluses and minuses

I’ve written before about how I’ve become more choosy in my old age when it comes to writing. If something doesn’t grab my attention early, I will quit it. Books I have quit because they don’t grab me include:

  • Wait, that would be mean I need to list them.
  • Mid-post I’m rethinking that strategy.
  • I’d rather be a Positive Paul than a Negative Ned

So, instead of dwelling on the books where I said “I’ve got to quit you,” here are some books that kept my attention recently: Continue reading “Pluses and minuses”

Hell House

Who doesn’t like a good haunted house story? Well, I suppose some don’t (who are you people?) but given the enduring popularity of the genre, there must a be a sizeable chunk of readers out there who like reading about things that go bump in the night. In my experience it is more difficult to sustain a haunted house story for a whole novel, especially when you compare that to how effective short stories can be. How well does Richard Matheson do in Hell House? Read further if you’re ok with spoilers (though the book was published in 1971, so it’s not exactly hot off the presses.)

Continue reading “Hell House”

Biography on Madison and the Future of America

My current car book (popping in the CDs, very old school) is a biography of James Madison. It’s good, and I’ll maybe do a review of it later, but I want to talk about a comment I heard this morning that the biographer makes as he is describing how Madison and Jefferson first conceived of the Republican (now Democrat) party.

Continue reading “Biography on Madison and the Future of America”

Just a Pit Stop in the Galaxy

I recently finished a book called Way Station by Clifford D. Simak, and thought it was good enough to post about. Enoch Wallace is a civil war soldier whose house is transformed into a transfer station for aliens traveling around in space. It’s kind of a like a backwater bus stop no one stays at because there’s nothing to see. He becomes the keeper of the station, and therefore immortal. The story picks up with the government finally noticing the strange behavior of this hermit, hiding away in a remote part of Wisconsin, who never ages and who sends diamonds away every now and then to maintain his funds. You’ve probably never heard of the great diamond mines of Wisconsin. Well, neither has the U.S. Government. Enoch has lived a hundred years or so as the keeper without an incident, but forces beyond his control are bringing things to a head. (Warning: the analysis of the book below contains spoilers). Continue reading “Just a Pit Stop in the Galaxy”

Oh Mother Where Art Thou?

Two books I’ve read in the last few months share themes that make them worthy of a post (more than worthy!) They’re both excellent, tightly written, suspenseful horror fiction, and both explore a mother realizing her child is the embodiment of evil. These two masterpieces of Mommy Macabre (mahvelous!) are Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin and The Bad Seed by William March. If you haven’t read them, and don’t like it when someone gives away the plot, read no further, but for the rest, let us proceed. Continue reading “Oh Mother Where Art Thou?”

Werewolf, magic, with a twist

The Changeling Prince was a very readable book, and Velde does a great job of having you root for the central character, Weiland. He is a sympathetic young man/wolf put into impossible situations, and this is all to Velde’s credit. The drawbacks of the book are: 1) Weiland doesn’t really think his way through any of the problems. When there is a big reveal at the end, it isn’t because the main character has reasoned it out, which is ultimately more satisfying for the reader; rather, it is just dumb luck. 2) The climax is rushed and feels very deus ex machina. I won’t give much away when I note that the character of Kedj, the villainess’ henchman, is incomplete and yet he figures heavily in the final crisis. 3) The villainess is vile to the extreme but she lacks in levels, character shadings that would make her more realistic. She is a spoiled child with incredible power, but that is about as deep as it goes.

All in all, I’m glad I read it. A little above the level of juvenile fantasy in terms of writing style and subject matter. I would give it a partial recommend.