Fred Saberhagen’s Swords Trilogy

At the end of 2017, we were treated to the news that Amazon was planning a new series based on Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings series. The response on the internet seemed to be a bit of a collective groan, as the last Hobbit movie just came out four years ago, and the last of the epic Lord of the Rings movies was only 15 years ago.  Many, including myself, asked: aren’t there any other epic fantasy series that could be adapted instead?

Of course there are many. One example that I think would have a lot of promise for an incredible screen adaptation is Fred Saberhagen’s Book of Swords trilogy, which I finished reading a week ago.

The trilogy, called first Swords here, first appeared over 1983-1984; of course I came across it after I finished reading Saberhagen’s Berserker and became curious about his other works.

The series is a lot of fun! There are some things I think are lacking, which I discuss in this post, but overall it is an enjoyable and intriguing read.

The series is centered around, of course, the titular swords — twelve swords of power forged by Vulcan and dispersed among humanity for the twisted amusement of the gods.  A poem describes the swords, and their strengths and weaknesses, at the end of the first book:

Who holds Coinspinner knows good odds
Whichever move he make
But the Sword of Chance, to please the gods
Slips from him like a snake.

The Sword of Justice balances the pans
Of right and wrong, and foul and fair.
Eye for an eye, Doomgiver scans
The fate of all folk everywhere.

Dragonslicer, Dragonslicer, how d’you slay?
Reaching for the heart in behind the scales.
Dragonslicer, Dragonslicer, where do you stay?
In the belly of the giant that my blade impales.

Farslayer howls across the world
For thy heart, for thy heart, who hast wronged me!
Vengeance is his who casts the blade
Yet he will in the end no triumph see.

Whose flesh the Sword of Mercy hurts has drawn no breath;
Whose soul it heals has wandered in the night,
Has paid the summing of all debts in death
Has turned to see returning light.

The Mindsword spun in the dawn’s gray light
And men and demons knelt down before.
The Mindsword flashed in the midday bright
Gods joined the dance, and the march to war.
It spun in the twilight dim as well
And gods and men marched off to hell.

I shatter Swords and splinter spears;
None stands to Shieldbreaker.
My point’s the fount of orphans’ tears
My edge the widowmaker.

The Sword of Stealth is given to
One lonely and despised.
Sightblinder’s gifts: his eyes are keen
His nature is disguised.

The Tyrant’s Blade no blood hath spilled
But doth the spirit carve
Soulcutter hath no body killed
But many left to starve.

The Sword of Siege struck a hammer’s blow
With a crash, and a smash, and a tumbled wall.
Stonecutter laid a castle low
With a groan, and a roar, and a tower’s fall.

Long roads the Sword of Fury makes
Hard walls it builds around the soft
The fighter who Townsaver takes
Can bid farewell to home and croft.

Who holds Wayfinder finds good roads
Its master’s step is brisk.
The Sword of Wisdom lightens loads
But adds unto their risk.

It is to be noted that pretty much every sword comes with a downside or price to be paid. For example, Wayfinder will point the way to any desired goal, but will take the most perilous path available.  The swords cause great mischief, but they have a secret that could alter the balance of power in the world forever — they have the ability to slay the gods themselves.

The trilogy is quite epic in scope, though it is kept somewhat personal by following Mark, the son of a human blacksmith who was forced to help Vulcan forge the swords.  In the first book, Mark is forced to flee his home as a young man thanks to the misfortunes brought by one of the swords. Along the way, he faces many dangers, makes new friends, and comes across several of the swords.  By the end, he is wrapped up in the first of several epic wars sparked by the thirst for power that the swords naturally engender.

The second book is a heist caper with a distinctly Dungeons & Dragons feel. Several adventurers, aided by their swords, plan to rob the main treasure hoard of the Blue Temple, which worships the acquisition of wealth for its own sake. The horde is guarded by terrible monsters and deadly traps, and the heroes must face many twists and turns, and a few gods and demons, before they reach their goal — which includes several more swords in the hoard.

By the third book, the gods are aware of the terrible danger that their game has placed them in, and are actively trying to reclaim the swords. This is not as easy as they hope. At the same time, a powerful sorcerer known as The Dark King, aided by the power of the Mindsword, is waging a final war to bring all nations under his cruel control.  By the end of the conflict, the world will have been changed forever, and a new age of humanity will have dawned.

The world of Saberhagen’s first Swords is in fact our own, some 50,000 years after a global catastrophe has altered the laws of physics making magic and supernatural beings possible while simultaneously disrupting most technology.  Part of this history is recounted in Saberhagen’s earlier Empire of the East trilogy from the late 60s/early 70s, but the first Swords can be enjoyed without reading it. In fact, it may be more fun to read first Swords without knowing the background, as it gives the trilogy a great sense of history and Anmystery.

The gods are inherited from our world, as well, primarily from the Greco-Roman mythos but Hindu deities make an appearance, as well. As one would expect from such types, the gods are petty, cruel, egotistical, capricious, and overall jerks.  And they typically can get away with it, as they have magical powers that far outstrip any mortal or demon.

Magic is a more subtle affair than in many fantasy series. Wizards in first Swords generally serve more of a support role, as it is quickly noted that their powers are weak in the midst of combat.  It is worth noting that Saberhagen doesn’t “cheat” with the magic in his series — it isn’t some super-technology, as the setting might suggest to readers, but genuine supernatural powers. In most cases, anyway — part of the fun in the books is trying to figure out which phenomena are true magic, and which are simply indistinguishable from magic.

Several other powerful beings play key roles in the books, and their origins are left deliberately vague throughout most of the trilogy.  One of these is Draffut, known as the King of Beasts, who has a particular affinity with all animals and is sworn not to directly hurt humans. Another is the Emperor, a legendary figure who is known by many as the Great Clown, due to his penchant for wearing masks and playing pranks. Both of them are underestimated, a big mistake on their enemies’ part.

One limitation of the first Swords, and all of Saberhagen’s work that I’ve read so far, is the characters.  None of the have significant depth to them and, though they are interesting, leave little impression on the reader long-term.

Fortunately, this isn’t a great limitation on the enjoyment of the books. The real thrill is seeing the swords rapidly switch hands, changing the fortunes of their wielders and former wielders equally quickly. The swords are stolen, gifted, lost, discovered, traded, and even wander off on their own.  This is the aspect of the books that would make a really fun fantasy television series, in my opinion: lots of unexpected twists and turns, and unpleasant surprises, as ambitious people learn what the swords can do, and what cost that power comes with.

The first Swords form a complete closed story, and as I said it ends with big changes for the world. However, the ending comes quite quickly, and seems very abrupt — this is a regular complaint about the trilogy.  Apparently Saberhagen himself may have felt the same, as he wrote another eight books, the Books of Lost Swords, from 1986 to 1994.  Each of these books focuses on one particular sword.  I haven’t read any of these yet, but I just ordered a ridiculously inexpensive copy of the first of these, Woundhealer’s Story, so I will have more to say in a future post.

Overall, I found first Swords to be a really enjoyable, fun, and fast-paced series.  It’s weaknesses are outweighed by the thrills it provides and its compelling science fantasy setting.

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