Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Readings — The Complete Book of Swords

The Complete Book of Swords
by Fred Saberhagen

On the one hand, this is a collection of a solid three-book fantasy adventure series. On the other hand, it’s an infernally frustrating piece of writing that never quite rises up to its potential.

You can’t really fault it. The ambition, or lack of same, of the series is plain enough from the beginning. It’s readable, exciting, and that’s it and that’s enough. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. The setting’s vivid in its little details, annoyingly vague or peculiar in its large scale. Names are generic, even everyday; Gods are (mostly) named for Greco-Roman myth, and it’s not clear why that is. But the plots are engaging, and vary in nature from book to book, and the scale does open out a bit as the series goes on.

But, damn, what a concept Saberhagen came up with. Those Gods created a dozen magical swords, somehow more powerful than the Gods themselves. Each sword has its own distinctive power, which tends to operate according to specific rules. And each sword has a name. So Coinspinner brings good luck — but tends to vanish when its needed most. Inevitably, the series becomes in part about the discovery of the secrets of the swords. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. There is, really, quite a lot that’s right.

In fact, the constant presence and mystery of the swords gives the series a real touch of mythic power, of wonder; and makes you wish the three books were better equipped to take advantage. You can’t help but think that the machinations of Gods and the mystery of deep magic and the resonant imagery of the swords should have added up to something truly memorable. Instead, there’s just ... a solid fantasy adventure series. Nothing wrong with that at all.

You just wish it had been a bit more right.

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