I read several of the books in this series before I started writing reviews so my recollection is a bit hazy, but the impressions I retained were positive enough for me to recently start bookmooching out the gaps. Saberhagen is anything but meticulous, and in recently reviewing The Second Book of Swords I said the weaknesses could be excused by the chaotic strengths. Unfortunately I think I’ve reversed that judgement with this book.
I am prepared to enjoy the different spin on these swords: they have something like the potency of the one ring, but Saberhagen eschews much of the weight of huge destiny and nobility to greatly widen the possibilities: what would some people do if they gained a superpower like going invisible (and, yes, the ‘Heroes’ comparison is valid. That TV series (I only got through series 1) started well – more with the Saberhagen approach – but got increasingly stupid, eventually becoming as ugly a trainwreck as the Matrix sequels. More holes than swiss cheese – which is also the undoing of Sightblinder’s Story). Tolkien plays with this a little, but Samwise was never going to use it to sneak a peak at Rosie bathing. Not so in Saberhagen: a God-forged sword is just as likely to be used for a petty seduction as to conquer a nation. In this way the random interactions can be clever, tragic, playful, absurd, potent – the list goes on.
There were still elements of this in ‘Sightblinder’s Story’, but the weaknesses outweighed the strengths. Probably the biggest flaw is the appalling stock villain. Bam, he just appears from nowhere, army in hand, demons at his call, and casually dismisses one of the most powerful magicians on the planet (a magician, by the way, who despite his apparent importance, is barely more than a name, and who, even when rescued, has no effect on events. Ugly). OK, so Snidely Whiplash/Blofeld has turned up to take over the world, despite no-one having heard of him in any previous or following books. I had hoped Saberhagen would avoid this trap – there’s no need to make everything epoch-shaking to tell a good yarn, it’s a cheap trick: “Oh, I know the events and characters are a bit weak, but … the fate of the entire city/nation/country/planet/galaxy/life itself is at stake!” More random things are plausible when the stakes aren’t so high because there are not going to be so many potent interested parties. Sure, occasionally you can pull off something where a big result comes from some coincidental circumstances around a major power, but there’s no way Saberhagen gets away with it here.
Apart from that common genre defect (instant baddies inexplicably having armies and galactic powers … often even more inexplicably instantly reacquiring them in sequels even after being defeated/killed (Feist, Moorcock, Jordan)), the baddie element gets even more contradictory. One minute he can just sense where Mark is, and with casual ease claim one of the most powerful weapons in the world, the next people are trotting about under his nose and he has no idea (whether or not they have Sightblinder). And I just rolled my eyes when we’re supposed to swallow that Mr conquering army super-wizard can’t get to a couple of minimally armed individuals on his roof. I mean, Saberhagen at least spends a couple of pages trying to justify this, and he could have got away with it if his villain had have been some petty local tyrant, but not given his previous gargantuan CV.
OK, so this episode is undermined by the villain. What of the overplot of the series? Well, that could be pretty much reduced to ‘someone we thought was dead maybe isn’t’. OK. Nothing really like character development or a larger picture becoming a little clearer, or something clicking into place making more sense of, say, ‘The Emperor’. While there is pleasure in Saberhagen not falling into a standard inevitable plotline, the danger in randomly moving about is that the series veers towards soap opera. And unless you care about these characters, that’s not enough. We’re not really made to care about them – in this book anyway they just do stuff: goodies fighting baddies to win. Their motivations, personalities and relationships are hardly textured.
So, yeah, even if it means a hole in a series I’ve largely collected, I’m not keeping this book.