Wednesday, July 16, 2014

semi-recent read: The (First) Swords trilogy

Fred Saberhagen is one author I made a point to read more of this year.

I didn't think I'd read three of his in a row, but seeing as how I had them in omnibus form, I went ahead with reading the entire first trilogy of his Swords novels. (I did take some breaks between to read other material.)
Twelve magical swords, forged by Vulcan himself, are the focal point of the series. But this is not the ancient god, Vulcan, that we know. Rather, the Swords tales are set centuries into Earth's future, generations after Saberhagen's sci-fantasy trilogy, Empire of the East.

The gods have returned, and they want to play a game. What the game is and what they might win or lose is never made clear. That is intentional. The gods themselves don't entirely understand their own nature. That is just one intriguing mystery of the trilogy. The Swords are dispersed among men. Struggles and battles ensue as both men and gods attempt to acquire the Swords and harness their powers - for good and evil.

The first tale's hero is named Mark. (I get a kick out of Saberhagen's use of such commonplace names in a fantasy setting.) Under magic compulsion, Mark's own father, Jord, helped Vulcan to forge the swords. Jord also sacrificed an arm in the process. Mark's lineage is somewhat uncertain and he seems to have a connection to the swords, but he doesn't fully understand that connection. Forced to flee home, Mark becomes entangled in swords, princes, seers, dragons and villains. He makes fast friends among a group of dragon hunters, two of whom, Ben and Barbara, become the major secondary characters in the trilogy.

The second novel is almost a classic dungeon crawl, as Ben and Mark join with a group of treasure looters. Everyone wants to get rich, but Mark also wants to secure Swords for his liege's cause. Their choice of raid is fraught with peril. The Blue Temple see the worship of money as a religion, and they don't look kindly upon thieves.

I really enjoyed the third book. It had an intriguing opening, and lots of variety to the plot. Very unexpected things happened. The Blue Temple return for revenge, the gods become much more directly involved in the struggles of men. A new villain, the Dark King, is wonderfully creepy.

The first strong point of this trilogy is its variety. Saberhagen keeps changing things up. Each book does not follow immediately in the world. Four years or so pass between each book, and things happen between the tales, that shift settings, balance of power, and even how and where the characters are and where they have been.

I was surprised that the story was not wrapped up neatly. At the end, some gods have died, some have disappeared, two Swords have been destroyed, and the fate of the main human characters in their last ditch battle is unknown.

I know the Swords tales continue for the eight novels of the Lost Swords series. I guess I thought the Lost Swords might take place between the lines of this first trilogy, but it appears that is not the case. The world goes on, the gods go on, characters, gods and swords come and go.

I look forward to reading some of the other titles, just to see what Saberhagen threw into the mix with each story.


  1. I've owned that omnibus for years, and it's sitting not three feet from me as I type this. I guess I will have to dust it off and crack it open.

  2. I, too, have had a copy for years and never read it. Something else to add to the queue.

    I see you're reading The Continental Op. An excellent choice. Hammett is one of my all time favorites.

  3. I read the very first one in the series and liked it OK but didn't feel compelled to continue. I have the omnibus versions of the first six. I do remember the first line of the first book, which I thought was awesome: "In what felt to him like the first cold morning of the world, he groped for fire."

    1. Yeah, the first one didn't grab me quite as much as I expected, but I enjoyed the 2nd and thought he really hit stride on the 3rd.