one of which was included in Gygax's Appendix N. Like its predecessor series, The First Book of Swords skirts the line between fantasy and science fiction, though, without the benefit of knowing the novel's deep background, it would like appear to be a (mostly) pure fantasy. That background includes a destructive nuclear war that nearly wipes out the human race in the ancient past and that paves the way for the return of magic and the gods (or so it seems). It should be noted, though, that Saberhagen's approach to magic is very scientific, by which I mean that it's predictable and operates according to intelligible rules. This is a function of its origins in the setting of The First Book of Swords, but it also has consequences for the unfolding of the story he's telling.
That story involves the forging of twelve magical swords by the god Vulcan. As part of some plan whose ultimate end is not revealed, Vulcan intends to place these twelve swords in the hands of human beings. This novel deals with only four of the swords, named Townsaver, Dragonslicer, Coinspinner, and Sightblinder, the first of which is given to a smith named Jord who, along with several other smiths, is chosen by Vulcan to be his assistants in the crafting of these mighty weapons. Of course, Vulcan needs the humans primarily for their blood, which he uses in quenching the blades. Jord is the sole survivor but even he pays a price for his aid to the god. He loses an arm but is gifted with Townsaver, which Jord says is "for me, and for my son after me."
It is Jord's son, Mark, who is the true protagonist of The First Book of Swords. He comes into his own at the age of twelve, when he wields Vulcan's gift to his father, Townsaver, in defense of his home. Unfortunately for him, his actions result in the death of an innocent man, the cousin to a powerful nobleman and Mark is forced to flee for his life with the sword. Thus begin his adventures, where he, in typical fantasy novel fashion, sees many places and meets many people, some of whom stay with him, as he unravels the mystery of not only Townsaver and the other swords, but also of himself and his destiny.
The First Book of Swords isn't great literature by any means, but it has a lot of interesting ideas in it, particularly the relationship of the gods to mortals and the effect that these swords have on events in the human world. The characters themselves are less interesting, being very archetypal, especially to those of us who've read more fantasy stories than they care to count. Likewise, Saberhagen's style is strangely spare, lacking in bombast or romance. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is up to each reader to decide.
I've always found it intriguing that Gary Gygax frequently include Fred Saberhagen amongst his favorite fantasy authors. In retrospect, it makes more sense than I'd realized. Saberhagen's magic, as I already noted, is very scientific in character, almost technological, which is very much in keeping with the way magic functions in D&D. Likewise, the twelve swords of this series are potent but idiosyncratic artifacts, as much banes and boons to those who wield them. I wonder, too, if they might have served as the inspirations for the "final word" broadswords introduced in Unearthed Arcana, since this novel came out only a few years before the release of UA and I'd be amazed if Gary hadn't read it.