Books of Swords

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The Book of Swords Series is collectively a science fiction/fantasy novel series written by Fred Saberhagen. Its central theme revolves around twelve magical Swords forged by the gods, each endowed with a particular power or gift, and how various people acquire and use them. The series spans several decades and features dozens of characters.

The Complete Book of Swords[edit]

  1. The First Book of Swords (1983)
  2. The Second Book of Swords (1983)
  3. The Third Book of Swords (1984)

Books of Lost Swords[edit]

  1. Woundhealer's Story (1986)
  2. Sightblinder's Story (1987)
  3. Stonecutter's Story (1988)
  4. Farslayer's Story (1989)
  5. Coinspinner's Story (1989)
  6. Mindsword's Story (1990)
  7. Wayfinder's Story (1992)
  8. Shieldbreaker's Story (1994)

The Twelve Swords of Power[edit]

The Swords of Power are created by the god Vulcan. Each has its own unique magical ability, and they are powerful enough to affect the mythological gods that exist within the series. The plot of the entire series revolves around the finding, acquiring, stealing, using, and eventual destroying of the Swords for purposes good or evil. the 12 swords are 1. Townsaver 2. Shieldbreaker 3. Stonecutter 4. Woundhealer 5. Doomgiver 6. Coinspinner 7. Dragonslicer 8. Farslayer 9. Mindsword 10. Sightblinder 11. Wayfinder 12. Soulcutter


The Book of Swords series blends science fiction and fantasy to create unique takes on the staples of both genres. The back story to the Swords universe is explained in Saberhagen's Empire of the East series.

The Change[edit]

The books are set far into the future, although this is not immediately obvious to the reader. Approximately 50,000 years before the story, sometime during our third millennium, mankind is almost driven to extinction by a global apocalypse. This is explained as being brought on by a nuclear World War prior to the events in Empire of the East. An intelligent super-computer, ARDNEH, part of a former American nuclear response system, initiated a physical change to the structure of the world. Unintentionally combined with a similar system on the other side of the world, this change negated the effects of atomic weaponry and most other forms of high technology, and introduced other side-effects, such as the creation of magic, gods, and demons. ARDNEH then continued to stabilize and sustain humanity through the ensuing Dark Ages. ARDNEH was destroyed millennia before the events of the series, as chronicled in Saberhagen's Empire of the East series. By the time the events recorded in The Books of the Swords occur, ARDNEH has passed into legend, worshiped as a benevolent god.

Interestingly, the length of "The Change" is recorded in scripture to be 49,949 years,[1] indicating that the period of the Swords universe may in fact be a twilight period (compare to Götterdämmerung).


The gods of the Swords universe are based on various mythological deities, with most coming from the Greco-Roman and Hindu pantheons. They are elements of human hope and imagination that were made real approximately one thousand years after The Change. As such, they have no real power other than what mankind gives them. When this fact is discovered during the game of the Swords, the gods begin to slowly lose power and then disappear altogether.

Despite these gods' having no "real", or innate, power, humanity has invested quite a bit into their legend during the height of their worship and popularity. Thus for most of the series, the various gods and goddesses hold enormous power over mankind. Though the gods do not like to descend from the heavens and deal with mortals, when they do, they are physically larger than men in build and appearance, have nearly infinite physical power, can seemingly break the laws of nature at will and harness magic effortlessly. Gods are far stronger than demons and do not generally fear them.

The gods, having become bored with mankind, devise a grand game of survival of the fittest to be played out on earth. So they create Twelve Swords of Power, and scatter them throughout the world, planning to watch and wager over the chaos that ensues. However, the gods find out they have created too well, and that the Twelve hold power over, and can even kill, the divine. Faced with their gods' mortality, mankind begins to question belief and faith in them. Ironically, in making the Swords as a game to inflict on man, the gods unwittingly engineered their own demise.


The Demons of Saberhagen's Swords universe are the remnants of atomic or other high power weapons detonations, rendered anthropomorphic by The Change. They can take on various forms and appearances, but their natural form is a free floating, possibly radioactive, cloud. Their mere presence can sicken and injure those who have not magically prepared themselves to resist them.

A demon's power is greater than that of any human, though sufficiently strong wizards can experience substantial success in warding them off or even controlling them (such control is often a mainstay of a strong, frankly evil, wizard, for the power it confers, and which be used in defense or attacks—in the second volume of the original Book of Swords, a single demon appears to have been bound to a defensive task permanently, presumably for centuries)—though demons vary fairly widely in power, and the strongest demons are either extremely difficult or impossible to control ('The Black Mountains', 'Changeling Earth'). A typical demonic attack consists of the demon enveloping a person or animal and then devouring their life essence, which is a uniquely painful experience that the demon can prolong almost indefinitely if it wishes—though they have other methods of magic and quasi-material attack available as well ('The Black Mountains', The Second Book of Swords).

All demons have a "source of life", which is usually hidden within a fairly innocuous object like a mirror, charm, bottle, or weapon (compare to djinn). This object does not bear any relation to the demon's physical presence. However, if it is found, control can be exerted over the demon it belongs to, as harm or destruction to the life source will translate directly to the demon.

All demons have names, which they jealously guard. To know a demon's true name is to hold a great degree of power and influence over it. Knowing their name strengthens binding spells against the creature. Demons can be harnessed and used in these ways for swift transportation, skilled assassins, and horrific but effective bodyguards. One must be very careful in dealing with demons, as they resent being controlled and will exact a horrible vengeance on their masters if ever they are able to throw off their yoke.

Demons are powerless before the Emperor. Any of his children (and to a lesser extent, their children, etc.) have the power to banish demons, regardless of power or familiarity, by invoking the emperor's name in a verbal command.


Magic is an arcane and subtle art in the Swords universe. It takes a lifetime of training and dedication to pull off the simplest of parlor tricks. The most powerful sorcerers often have several lifetimes of mastery under their belt, as these mighty few have learned to delay aging and death, usually sacrificing their humanity somewhere along the way.

Magic is very fragile; unsheathed blades and other iron or steel objects degrade its power significantly. Thus it has limited martial uses. It is most often used to influence others, to mentally suggest or trick, to tame or calm. It can be used to accelerate healing, and dispel the effects of alcohol and drugs. Many times, armor or other implements are charmed by the use of symbols and spells to enhance their effectiveness.

Magic can be layered on over time, increasing its effectiveness. If one wanted to shut a door, one could spend literally weeks and months enchanting it, adding one spell on top of another, creating a magical barrier that could stop a determined intruder for days on end.

Wizards require both natural talent and great training to develop their art. However, this also imparts sensitivity to magical effects, which can have downsides. For example, in the Second Book of Swords, a treasure hoard was protected behind a magical maze. Magical sensitivity was required to navigate the maze successfully, but the maze's magical nature subjected Wizards to constant magical attack. Like demons, wizards are very picky about who knows their true name, for they are especially vulnerable to spells and magic incorporating this information.


There are three major religious sects in the Swords universe. Although many privately worship their own gods or goddesses in small shrines spread throughout the land, these three are institutions that can be found no matter where one goes.

White Temple[edit]

The White Temple is ordered around the worship of ARDNEH, and holds love and respect for life in high regard. Many of the leading healing centers and hospitals are actually White Temples, and most of what one thinks of as traditional "holy men" are servants of White. In addition to their roles as care givers, they also pray over the dead, give spiritual guidance, help to the poor, and give sanctuary to the weak.

Red Temple[edit]

The Red Temple is concerned with worship of the flesh. Its chief goddess is Aphrodite. The Red Temple provides and controls much of the traffic in prostitution and drugs, although they also encourage free love, gambling, gluttony, excessive drinking, or anything else that one can derive pleasure from. Most reputable citizens publicly repudiate the goings on at the Red Temple, but many also secretly join in the activity.

Blue Temple[edit]

The Blue Temple worships money, and is concerned with the finding, acquiring, and possession of it as an end to itself. It hoards staggering wealth, but never does anything with it. At one point the Blue Temple hoarded four of the Twelve Swords of Power, including Shieldbreaker, which they never used for fear of losing them. The Blue Temple Hoard is the famous secret depository of their holdings, and is guarded by a dragon, a demon, a host of enchanted and enslaved soldiers, and the finest physical and magical locks that can be obtained or devised. Security is so absolute that only two or three people at one time ever know its location, and Blue Temple recruits that are used to bring new loot to the Vault are executed immediately on site after their delivery is complete.


Ardneh is apparently a supercomputer formerly known as ARDNEH (an acronym for Automatic Restoration Director – National Executive Headquarters, though the full name is not widely known) made self-aware during The Change. It acted to preserve and defend the remnant of humanity from the effects of a global apocalypse that occurred thousands of years ago. In Saberhagan's "Empire of the East" ARDNEH sacrificed itself to save humanity from the demon Orcus by undoing The Change on the demon. Both ARDNEH and Orcus perished in the resulting nuclear explosion. Though the original ARDNEH was destroyed thousands of years ago, it lives on in legend, as a benevolent god worshiped by many, most notably the disciples of the White Temple. Ardneh is depicted in art as having an impossibly broad face with a neutral expression, that gives the vague impression of machinery to those looking at it. ARDNEH had a backup version of itself with more limited capacity based on the moon. This computer is the one responsible for keeping the effects of The Change in place during the time of the Swords.



Mark is the son of the blacksmith Jord, one of the conscripted smiths that aided Vulcan in forging the Swords, losing his arm in the process. Jord received Townsaver as "payment" for his services. A decade later, as the rich and powerful become aware of the Swords, a Duke's cousin attempts to take Townsaver from Jord. Mark's brother Kenn was holding Townsaver when he, Jord, and the men with the duke's cousin were attacked by bandits who appeared to be primarily after the duke's cousin. It is at this point the magical powers of the sword are manifest and it defeats the attacking bandits. It does not, however, protect its bearer from fatal injury and Mark's brother dies as soon as the battle is over. During the battle Mark accidentally kills the duke's cousin while trying to shoot a bandit with his bow. At his mother's behest, he takes the Sword and flees for his life with the Duke's forces soon in pursuit seeking the power of the Sword.

Even from an early age, Mark is tall and has strength of mind and character. He joins the ranks of the Arthurian Sir Andrew as a teenager, and follows him in many battles against the evil warlords bent on controlling the Swords. In one mission, Mark manages to rescue the princess regent of the land of Tasavalta, becoming her consort in the process. This leads to Mark becoming prince and ruler over the small kingdom. Tasavalta becomes home to many of the Swords, where they are heavily guarded and kept out of the hands of evildoers.

Mark eventually finds out that his biological father was not Jord, but that he is one of the many illegitimate children of the Emperor. This gives him several mystical powers in addition to his considerable mundane ones. Mark is the principal protagonist of the series, and probably the single most experienced human in dealing with the Twelve Swords of Power, with the possible exception of Jord.

Mark also has the ability to banish demons just by invoking the name of the emperor (his true biological father) to great distances and any human or object being carried by the demon. The true extent of how far the demon goes seems to grow stronger as Mark uses this ability. At one point he banished a demon carrying the dark king Vilkata (who was in possession of the mindsword) to the moon.


Ben becomes Mark's best friend after he is forced to flee from the wrath of the Duke. They remain steadfast friends throughout the series. Ben starts as a heavily built, powerful, extremely plain boy with aspirations of becoming a minstrel while lacking the necessary aptitudes. He grows over the course of the series into a stalwart and dependable man. Since Mark is a paragon of virtue and heroism, Ben plays the role of a more believable and emotionally developed character for the reader to identify with. He suffers setbacks, is frequently unlucky in love, and is constantly underestimated by foes and unappreciated by friends, but the one constant throughout his life seems to be his unswerving loyalty to Mark, even well before Mark becomes Prince regent of Tasavalta. Ben has at times been a dragon slayer's apprentice, Blue Temple guard, soldier, and aspiring minstrel.


Barbara is a member of the Dragon Hunting team with Ben. She takes on leadership of the team after Nestor's disappearance. She is not a gold-digger but simply tired of being poor, and is determined not to marry Ben until he can support her. They marry after the successful raid on the Blue Temple hoard makes Ben very wealthy.


Nestor is an important character in the first book. At the start of the story he is in possession of Dragonslicer and in the business of hunting dragons. He disappears at the end of the first book, presumably killed in the fall of Sir Andrew's Green wielding Townsaver.


Ariane is the daughter of the Emperor and Queen Yambu. Chosen by Wayfinder as integral to their planned robbery of the Blue Temple hoard, for reasons unclear to protagonist and reader at the time, but with large consequence down the line. It is Ariane who first banishes a demon using the Emperor's name, prompting Mark's desperate invocation of the name of the Emperor at a later date.


The Emperor is the most powerful individual in the Swords universe. He is extremely mysterious, and in fact is seen as nothing more than a fairy-tale character by many. He is seemingly immune to all forms of magic and is described as a "consummate magician" himself. There is some question as to whether he is immune to the Swords. Early in the series he seems to be driven away by the threat of Soulcutter and only approaches it, later, with the aid of Shieldbreaker; however, when Draffut is wielding Sightblinder, the Emperor is not fooled. He orders about, banishes, and even destroys demonic forces on a whim. He acts in ways that are hard for characters and the reader to comprehend.

The Emperor is often referred to as the Great Clown because of his penchant for wearing masks and allegedly playing pranks. When unmasked, he appears to be an average middle aged man dressed in plain gray robes. The Emperor has begotten many illegitimate children, to the point where "Emperor's child" is a common colloquialism for any urchin, orphan, or bastard. However, true descendants of the Emperor (like Mark and Ariane) have a measure of his power over evil, though they are often unaware they possess it. A person with Imperial blood flowing in their veins may banish demons by giving a command in his name. A commonly used phrase is the rhyme "in the Emperor's name, forsake this game, and begone", which is good enough to hurl a demon to the proximity of lunar orbit.

The Emperor also has a mysterious romance with Queen Yambu. When she was a teen, without power and in mortal danger, the Emperor was her friend, ally, and lover. However, on attaining her throne, the two became estranged for many years, with the ambitious, proud, and distrustful Yambu threatened by his power, masculinity, and poor reputation. The Emperor repeatedly attempts to reconcile with Yambu throughout the series. When she is old and powerless, she finally agrees.

Late in the series the Emperor identifies himself thus: "Some long ago have called me the Sabbath, or the Covenant—some have called me Wisdom. Some lately have said that I am the Program of Creation."


Draffut is a key player in the story. Although thought by most people to be a god, Draffut actually started life as a dog, but he underwent a miraculous change into a giant fur-covered biped at some point 50,000 years earlier, after having been admitted to the Lake of Life. This gave him intelligence and magical powers of life and healing. His past as 'man's best friend' rendered him unable to harm humans, even those bent on his destruction, and at the same time he is sympathetic to their plight against the machinations of the gods, with a particularly ferocious animosity toward demons. It is Draffut who reveals that the gods are the creation of man rather than the reverse. Unanswered in the conclusion of the Third Book of Swords is the question by Vulcan of who, then, made man.


Vulcan, the Smith, god of fire, volcanoes and blacksmiths, is the most prominent of the deities in the series as the creator of the Swords. Charged by the pantheon of gods to create the Swords for their great game, by using human effort and blood in their creation, is revealed by Draffut to have imbued them with too much humanity so that they then had power over the gods.


The Dark King, known also as Vilkata, is one of the chief antagonists of the series. Vilkata is a powerful sorcerer and master of many demons. He will do anything to gain an upper hand over his enemies; as a younger man he gouged out his own eyes as a sacrifice in order to gain the power required to get revenge over those who had wronged him. Since then he uses minor demons kept in thrall to give him a bizarre form of telepathic vision. He traditionally wears black cloaks over stylized armor. He bears a ringlet of gold on his brow that keeps his long silver hair swept back. His eye sockets are empty—Vilkata wears no patches or blindfold to hide them which many find unnerving. He employs scorched earth, torture, and other deplorable tactics liberally to strike fear in any who would oppose them. Though an accomplished and feared warlock in his own right, what elevates Vilkata to a global threat is his frequent possession of the terrible Mindsword.


Wood, also known as the Ancient One, is an evil wizard of vast power who long ago gave up his humanity, if he ever possessed the quality in the first place. Wood is introduced as the chief wizard of the Emperor John Ominor in the Empire of the East series, and ultimately becomes the primary antagonist in the Book of Swords series, after he escapes the downfall of Orcus and the Empire of the East. According to lore, the only living beings older than Wood are the 50,000-year-old Draffut and the Great Worm Yilgarn, who has also existed for many thousands of years. Wood has not actually lived 50,000 years; he was saved from the nuclear holocaust of Orcus' demise by being brought forward through time. This makes Wood one of only two characters who are present from the beginning of Saberhagen's Gods/Swords world to the end (the other being Draffut). By escaping into the future, Wood is no longer human; it is the magical price he pays to survive. He is described as mostly humanoid in shape, though he sports hair, claws, and horns like a beast, and has small bat-wings sprouting from his back. He often rides on the back of a griffin. Wood fears little in life with the exception of the Swords he does not possess and one or two of the most powerful demons left over from the very end of the Old World. His mastery of magic, experience, and ruthless cunning make him a most puissant foe.


Queen Yambu is first introduced as another major antagonist. A onetime lover of the Emperor and mother to one of his children (Ariane), she too makes a bid for world domination by seeking possession of the Swords, but ultimately she uses the Sword Soulcutter against Vilkata and the Mindsword at the climax of the Third Book of Swords. Fundamentally changed after her experience with Soulcutter, Yambu becomes a pilgrim "seeking truth." She eventually allies herself with Mark and Ben, becoming a trusted traveling companion of Mark's nephew, Zoltan.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Saberhagen, Fred (2006). Ardneh's Sword (First ed.). New York: Tor Books. ISBN 9780765312105. OCLC 63660849. 

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