Books of Swords
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The Book of Swords Series is a series of science fiction/fantasy novels written by Fred Saberhagen from 1983 to 1995. The story revolves around the Twelve Swords of Power, which were forged by the gods and given to humanity, and how various characters acquire and use them. The series spans several decades and features dozens of characters.
The Complete Book of Swords
- The First Book of Swords (1983)
- The Second Book of Swords (1983)
- The Third Book of Swords (1984)
Books of Lost Swords
- Woundhealer's Story (1986)
- Sightblinder's Story (1987)
- Stonecutter's Story (1988)
- Farslayer's Story (1989)
- Coinspinner's Story (1989)
- Mindsword's Story (1990)
- Wayfinder's Story (1992)
- Shieldbreaker's Story (1994)
- An Armory of Swords (1995), an anthology of eight stories in the Swords universe by eight authors, including "Blind Man's Blade" by Saberhagen.
The Book of Swords series is also linked to the Empire of the East series, which is set in the same universe and presents the backstory to the series. The first three works in the Empire of the East series predate the Book of Swords series (The Broken Lands (1968), The Black Mountains (1971), and Changeling Earth (1973), also titled Ardneh's World), with the fourth Empire of the East book, Ardneh's Sword (2006), returning to the universe long after the Book of Swords series was complete.
Saberhagen wrote the first books in the series in the 1980s with the intention of developing them into a video game. Although some preliminary code and art was developed, the project was deemed technologically infeasible.
The books are set far into the future. Approximately 50,000 years before the story, sometime during the third millennium, mankind was almost driven to extinction by a global apocalypse brought on by a nuclear World War prior to the events in Empire of the East. The role of post-apocalyptic technology in creating a magical mythological society echoes Saberhagen's Berserker series. An intelligent supercomputer, ARDNEH (which was formerly part of an 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.
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 destruction of ARDNEH, when a group of humans donned Mark VII suits created by ARDNEH and a djinn as a possible defense against demons. The gods, having become bored with mankind, created Twelve Swords of Power, and scattered them throughout the world, as a grand game of survival of the fittest to be played out on earth.
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 presence can sicken and injure those who have not magically prepared themselves to resist them. 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.
Magic is a rare and fragile art in the Swords universe, requiring a lifetime of dedication. Magic is very fragile; unsheathed blades and other iron or steel objects degrade its power significantly. Thus it has limited martial uses, and is most often used to influence others.
There are three major religious sects in the Swords universe. Although many privately worship their own gods or goddesses, three institutions that can be found no matter where one goes. The White Temple is ordered around the worship of ARDNEH and values love and respect for life. 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. 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, and excessive drinking. The Blue Temple worships money, hoarding 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.
The Twelve Swords of Power
The plot of the entire series revolves around finding, acquiring, stealing, using, and eventually destroying twelve Swords of Power, each with a unique, magical ability and is powerful enough to affect the mythological gods that exist within the series. All of the swords are introduced in general terms by a poem, but it is only over the course of the series that the specific effects, conditions, and loopholes are discovered for each sword. By the end of the last book in the series (Shieldbreaker's Story) all the swords except Woundhealer have been destroyed.
The twelve swords are:
- Townsaver, "The Sword of Fury," can control the body of anyone trying to defend the unarmed, granting the wielder superhuman speed and strength. Once the Sword has been taken up, it does not allow itself to be set down until every enemy has been repelled. It does not protect the wielder from injury. The symbol on its hilt is a castle wall.
- Shieldbreaker, "The Sword of Force," provides protection from all weapons. Like Townsaver, Shieldbreaker takes over the sword arm of the person using it, and cannot be put down until the battle is over. Unlike Townsaver, Shieldbreaker protects the wielder from all harm, but cannot protect against an unarmed enemy or someone bearing Woundhealer (which is not a weapon). Its symbol is a hammer.
- Stonecutter, "The Sword of Siege," can pass its blade through any stone or mineral-based formation as easily as it would pass through air. Its symbol is a wedge splitting a block.
- Woundhealer, "The Sword of Mercy" or "The Sword of Love," can repair any injury or cure any other ailment, regardless of severity or how long ago it was inflicted, though it may take some time in cases of amputation for a limb to grow back. Its symbol is an open hand.
- Doomgiver, "The Sword of Justice," can turn any attack, overt or otherwise, back on the attacker. Its symbol is a circle.
- Coinspinner, "The Sword of Chance" or "The Sword of Fortune," makes the wielder preternaturally lucky. At the worst possible moment however, it may decide to turn the luck bad and leave the current wielder for another. Its symbol is a pair of dice.
- Dragonslicer, "The Sword of Heroes," provides the wielder with a killing stroke when facing a dragon. It is sometimes difficult to pull it from the wounds it makes. Its symbol is a dragon.
- Farslayer, "The Sword of Vengeance," can kill any person regardless of location, fortification, or protection by chanting its couplet and hurling it through the air. Of course, the friends of the victim can throw it right back. Its symbol is a bullseye.
- The Mindsword, "The Sword of Glory," "Skulltwister," or "The Sword of Madness," compels absolute and fanatical devotion to the person holding it, causing them to sacrifice their lives for the wielder if necessary. Its symbol is a waving banner.
- Sightblinder, "The Sword of Stealth," cloaks its wielder, allowing them to move freely wherever they choose, enhancing their perceptions at the same time. Its symbol is an eye.
- Wayfinder, "The Sword of Wisdom," leads its wielder to their goal, even leading them to the items and people necessary to complete their quest, but always taking the riskiest path available. Its symbol is an arrow.
- Soulcutter, "The Sword of Despair" or "The Tyrant's Blade," causes a deep malaise to affect all those around the wielder, including the wielder, who may very well starve to death from apathy with his enemies lying around him. The Mindsword or Shieldbreaker can protect the wielder from this effect. It is the only sword with no symbol on its hilt.
- 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 the blacksmith Jord. He initially believes himself to be Jord's son, but later learns 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.
- Jord is 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.
- Ben is Mark's steadfast friend 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.
- Barbara is a member of the Dragon Hunting team with Ben. She takes on leadership of the team after Nestor's disappearance. After the successful raid on the Blue Temple hoard makes Ben wealthy enough to support her, they marry.
- Ariane is the daughter of the Emperor and Queen Yambu, who is chosen by Wayfinder as integral to their planned robbery of the Blue Temple hoard. It is Ariane who first banishes a demon using the Emperor's name, prompting Mark to later use this power.
- 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 a magician, and seemingly immune to magic himself. There is some question as to whether he is immune to the Swords. 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 has begotten many illegitimate children, to the point where "Emperor's child" is a common colloquialism for any urchin, orphan, or bastard. 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.
- Queen Yambu is first introduced as another major antagonist. When she was a teen, without power and in mortal danger, the Emperor was her friend, ally, and lover; she is the mother of Ariane. However, on attaining her throne, the two became estranged for many years. She too makes a bid for world domination through the Swords, but after using 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. The Emperor repeatedly attempts to reconcile with Yambu throughout the series. When she is old and powerless, she finally agrees.
- Draffut started life as a dog, and underwent a miraculous change into a giant fur-covered biped at some point 50,000 years earlier. 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.
- 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. 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 form of telepathic vision. He employs scorched earth, torture, and other deplorable tactics liberally to strike fear in any who would oppose him.
- 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.
- Wood, also known as the Ancient One, is an evil wizard who ultimately becomes the primary antagonist in the Book of Swords series, after he escapes the downfall of Orcus and the Empire of the East. Wood 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). 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.
In a retrospective of Saberhagen's works, Joan Spicci Saberhagen says the series "proved very popular among readers." A review of Armory of Swords in Kirkus was lukewarm, calling the series as a whole "generally above-average" and the short story collection "agreeable entertainment for Lost Swords fans." Jason Heller's reflections on "science fantasy" as a genre remembers the Swords series as an exciting exemplar of science fantasy, presenting a similar premise as Thundarr the Barbarian in a format that was "literary and a bit more mature."
Novelist Dan Wells credits Saberhagen with inspiring his own writing aspirations, and praises the series' combination of the "stunning imagination" of fantasy with the "logical" plotting of science fiction. Despite noting that the worldbuilding is sometimes underdeveloped, Wells praises the series' "addictive brilliance" in building and then resolving the swords as interlocking "logistical puzzle[s]."
- "An Armory of Swords". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved 2020-06-17.
- "Fiction Book Review: An Armory of Swords". Publishers Weekly. Retrieved 2020-06-17.
- Wells, Dan (2016-11-15). "Power with Consequences: Fred Saberhagen's Swords Series". Tor.com. Retrieved 2020-06-11.
- Spicci Saberhagen, Joan (2009). "Introduction". Of Berserkers, Swords and Vampires: A Saberhagen Retrospective. Riverdale, N.Y.: Baen. ISBN 978-1-4391-3269-2. OCLC 276818898.
- "Authors : Saberhagen, Fred : SFE : Science Fiction Encyclopedia". www.sf-encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2020-06-11.
- Carlson, Michael (2007-07-19). "Obituary: Fred Saberhagen". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2020-06-11.
- Fred Saberhagen (2006). Ardneh's Sword (First ed.). New York: Tor Books. ISBN 9780765312105. OCLC 63660849.
- "Starships, swords, and the faded grandeur of science fantasy". TV Club. Retrieved 2020-06-17.