Monday, October 3, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The First Book of Swords

Published in 1983, Fred Saberhagen's The First Book of Swords is, as its name suggests, the first book in a series -- a trilogy, as it turns out -- that is itself a sequel to an earlier series of books, 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.


  1. I have not yet read the Swords books, but I have read 'Empire of the East' and enjoyed it thoroughly. (Saberhagen's Berserker tales, too.)

    I love the way he tells a story.

    There is a short story that explains the initial introduction of the Swords and how the gods lost them. I enjoyed that a lot. (It was in the anthology, 'An Armory of Swords' and recollected in the Saberhagen retrospective collection from Baen.)

    He is an author I want to read more of.

  2. Great series. BTW, you have it listed as "First book of series" once.

  3. Another fan of Empire of the East, which is the setting of the various Swords series. I particularly enjoyed the revelation of the nature of the Big Bad.

    [Also add the love for the Holmes-Dracula series.]

  4. "Like its predecessor series, The First Book of Series skirts the line between fantasy and science fiction..."

    I know Dan already commented on this slip ("Series" for "Swords"), but it's so perfect I couldn't resist commenting again. I've read all too many fantasy novels that were so bland, and so sequel-oriented, that they ought to have been called The First Book of Series.

  5. IIRC, the Swords books were a spin off from a never-produced computer game Saberhagen was involved in and a lot of the feel of the books stems from that limitation.

  6. I don't think the books were a spinoff, as much as Saberhagen saw computer games coming as a big thing and so crafted tales & a world that could be used as a video game basis.

  7. I had totally forgotten about these books. I found these in the local library sometime in fifth grade, I believe, when I was voraciously devouring all things sci-fi and fantasy I could get my hands on. I remember tearing through the series and thinking it was fun but not great. I'm not sure I ever picked up on the post-apocalyptic back story.

  8. I first read the Book of Swords series when I was in high school and loved them. The simplicity of the storytelling can be off-putting to some but I really enjoyed it and got a lot of good ideas from the series and its follow-up books, the Books of Lost Swords.

    Back around 2004 I wrote up the 12 Swords of Power for D&D 3.5 and was ready to print them in the online mag The Silven Trumpeter, but first I wrote to Fred Saberhagen for permission (since at the time I think we charged for the magazine). His wife replied to me that they were waiting on offers to convert the world of the swords into a full RPG setting, and unless I wanted to pay them a huge amount of cash they would not permit me to publish.

    Mr. Saberhagen died a few years ago, but I will still hold the Swords books (and the Lost Swords) as some of the most inspirational fantasy I've ever read.

  9. Really loved the Empire of the East trilogy and did like the Swords books also, but it did spin on too long IMO. Saberhagen's style is spare, I can understand why many people do not get much out of it -- he stands as one of my favorite fantasy writers though, and I am not real big on fantasy writing.

  10. One of the books in that series has a great idea. Someone - probably a goddess - explains that all the swords fulfill useful but highly specialized functions, and the most powerful sword is whatever sword you happen to need at the time.

  11. I really liked the books. They had a flavor to them that's unique in my experience.
    Besides the methodic approach to magic, I also liked the strategizing that occurred around the swords - you can use one in each hand and maybe cancel out some of their weaknesses, etc.
    The only problem I had is the huge gaps between the books. So much of the plot happens off the page that I felt like I was missing out.

  12. Empire of the East and the Swords books were among the first fantasy books I ever read, along with LotR, Shannara, Nancy Springer... IIRC the Second Book of Swords was just published when I started reading them, but unfortunately I never finished the series because I got hooked onto other books and authors while waiting for Swords sequels and lost touch with it. I think I have all the volumes and will finish them all some day.

  13. The Second Book of Swords in an unabashed dungeon-delve, which I always enjoyed. I thought it captured the spirit of D&D wonderfully while still being an interesting story all on its own. It's much better than the first book as well.


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