Years ago, when I was still trying to make it as a writer, I went to the World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis, and it was awesome. I got to meet people, talk to pros, and make some of the connections that ultimately led to me getting published several years later. But the biggest thrill for me, by a mile and a half, was that I got to meet Fred Saberhagen and shake his hand. I got to tell him that he was one of the biggest reasons I decided to become an author, and that’s as true today as it was back then.
It’s been a while since he passed away, and some of you may have never read his books, so I’m going to introduce you to some. He wrote pretty much everything, from SF to fantasy to horror, and I have to give a special shout out to his Berserker novels as the godfather of a ton of modern SF, but the ones I want to talk about today—my favorite ones, and the ones I keep coming back to—are the Sword books. The Empire of the East is a prologue of sorts, in that they take place in the same world, but the real series comprises eleven books: a main trilogy, and then eight more that read like connected vignettes.
The series begins with the aptly-titled The First Book of Swords, which presents a scenario as intricate and unpredictable as a wind-up toy: you get it ready, you set it in motion, and you see where it goes. The scenario is this: a vast pantheon of capricious gods gets bored one day and decides to play a game. They will forge twelve Swords of Power, imbuing each one with amazing, world-altering abilities, and then let them loose upon the world. Different gods can try to sway the outcome by using their various agents and pawns, and whichever god’s pawns come out on top is the winner. Fun, right? But wait! As the story progresses, we learn what the backs of the later books keep telling us: the gods forged too well. The Swords are so powerful that the gods themselves are subject to them: the Sword that controls minds can also control the gods’ minds; the sword that can kill anything can also kill a god. The entire world and the cosmology around it are thrown into chaos, and the lowly humans trapped in the game are able to turn the tables. The First, Second, and Third Books of Swords tell this story, of the game and the downfall of the beings who created it, and the other eight books (called the Books of Lost Swords: Woundhealer’s Story, Sightblinder’s Story, etc.) show what happens now that the humans are left to their own devices with super powerful Swords.
Saberhagen is a great writer with a stunning imagination, so the books are great fantasy right off the bat; the world itself is kind of undefined, but the focus is always on the Swords and the people who use them, so I give that a pass. There are two things, though, that elevate the books to addictive brilliance.
First: the Poem. The gods created a poem to go with the Swords, with one verse for each, to help spread the story across the world; every book in the series has a copy of this poem in the back for readers to obsess over. Here’s one of my favorites:
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.
And … that’s it. That’s all you know about the Sword, and so until you encounter it in the series—which might not be until book three or later—you’re just as lost as the characters. You know there’s a Sword named Farslayer, and you kind of know what it does, but you don’t exactly, and you don’t know why that last line takes such a dark turn. In the first book you see three Swords, maybe four at the most, and you don’t get a good sense of what even those few can do, so you get to speculate and hope and fear. Can Farslayer really kill someone from across the world? How? Who has it? When will it come into the story? The anticipation and uncertainty is downright delicious, and there was a time when I had the entire poem memorized—not because I tried to, but because I read it OVER AND OVER AND OVER and it just happened.
Second: the Swords’s powers. This is where Saberhagen really excels, and where you can see that logical SF background coming into play. The Swords are indestructible and mercilessly sharp, but more to the point each one has a power, and they can do that one thing better than anything or anyone else in the entire universe. The poem establishes what each Sword can and can’t do, and then Saberhagen just runs with it, following each idea to its logical conclusion. Woundhealer doesn’t hurt you, it heals you—it literally passes through you without damage, making you healthier as it goes—so what does that mean? Can it heal an injury? Cure a disease? Bring back a missing limb? Yes, yes, and yes, with a relentless logic that becomes, as we’ve seen, the eventual undoing of the gods who made them. They’re almost like computer programs in that sense, or Asimovian robots: we made them to do something and bound them by rules, and they’re going to follow those rules to the absolute extreme, even when that extreme isn’t something we’ve anticipated.
To use another example, let’s look at Farslayer again: you hold the sword, say the name of someone you want to kill, and off it goes to kill them. Boom, dead, nothing anyone can do to stop it. Is that someone hiding in a steel vault? Too bad. Is that someone a god? Still dead. Does that someone have a friend standing nearby who knows you’re the one who threw the sword in the first place?
Well, crap. He sends the sword right back at you, and now your super awesome weapon you thought was so great just killed you. In Farslayer’s Story (The Fourth Book of Lost Swords), we see a Hatfield/McCoy-style feud that more or less massacres an entire town in one night, as the hate-filled relatives keep sending the Sword back and forth, back and forth, killing everyone they can remember the name of.
And thus all of the Swords become this kind of logistical puzzle: you can use them, but only to do one thing, and only if you’re ready to deal with the side effects. Want to defend somebody? Townsaver’s great at that, but remember that it’s a Townsaver, not a you-saver; if it has to sacrifice its wielder to save the bystanders, it will. Want to be lucky? Coinspinner amplifies your good luck to amazing degrees, but it ramps up your bad luck, too, and sometimes it just straight up disappears, so: sucks to be you. Watching the characters scheme over the Swords, and plot carefully where and how to use them–and trying to guess where and how the ones we haven’t seen yet will show up–is part of the fun.
These books are awesome, and I’ve already spoiled too much—though there’s still plenty of stuff I haven’t even touched on. It’s probably my favorite fantasy series of all time, and if I ever write something that clever, well, I’ll assume it’s because I shook his hand that one time and it seeped into me through osmosis.
And nobody throw Farslayer at me, because seriously—I know the loophole.
Top image: Anachronism tabletop game; art by Michael Komarck.
Dan Wells is the author of the New York Times bestselling Partials Sequence, the Mirador series, and the John Cleaver series, which has been adapted into the award-winning film I Am Not a Serial Killer. He has been nominated for the Campbell Award and several Hugos, and has won a Hugo Award and three Parsec Awards for his podcast Writing Excuses. His newest book is the SF thriller Extreme Makeover, about a beauty company that destroys the world