Fred Saberhagen


The Second Book of Swords




I remembered this series fondly from years ago, but was a bit disappointed at how slap dash some of the characters and settings felt for a lot of the ride. Then again, that’s largely what this particular book is about – the very D & Dish ride through classic ‘Conan’ type situations. I suspect Saberhagen would be fine with that – he probably likes Howard more than Tolkien. He’s not quite as blithely lazy as Moorcock can be: I was amused by the way that when a contradiction would come up he wouldn’t take the time to rewrite the previous chapters to fix or integrate it, but would throw in a post-script justification (such as  - Radulescu’s hard to swallow about face, or in a couple of sentences where Barbara “…quickly explained how…” she and an entire army happened to turn up unbelievably providentially). He’s savvy enough to on a reread realise where readers will go, “As if…”, and concerned enough to come up with a usable (sort of) workaround, but planning and rewrites are not his core interests.


You can see that the he built the book around the central idea of a heist – a group working through several levels of security – and the early chapters are mainly the setup. I thought the way he gave Ben the knowledge of the vault was effective, although once ‘Wayfinder’ turned up entirely unnecessary: why did Doon have any use for Ben and Mark? Why did Wayfinder require them: they did nothing essential to help him achieve his goal, and ended up doing the complete opposite.


But sometimes the chaos works well for Saberhagen. I like the way that, for example, Mitspeiler has poured all his craft and years into what turns out to be his dead-end son. It’s not just the usual calculating that turns many a character into a virtual machine, and makes goodies and baddies sometimes indistinguishable as each action is merely the logical one of achieving greater power. There’s even some delightful philosophising:

..tried m’best. Tried hard, for a hundred years and more. And there he is. There he stands. So why bother? Never become a father, lad. Never become a parent. It’s a great … a great sorcery, that’s what. Turns your whole life inside out.


And that’s the real strength of this book. Instead of some vast unopposable destiny or prophecy ultimately driving events, in this universe some of the most momentous, cataclysmic, eon-shaking actions can come from the most petty or chance combination of factors. And it can work in a fantastically believable way. I loved the chaotic tumbling of the last few pages of the book as huge endeavours are so suddenly reduced to nothing, and then – and Saberhagen really pulls this off – there is a massive change out of nowhere.


It’s also refreshing that the series structure, unlike so many fantasy series, is not abused here: it’s a feature rather than a flaw. While Jordans, Feists and Eddings’ milk something well beyond dry, Saberhagen’s universe and the central idea of the swords is robust enough to happily entertain many books. They relate to each other, but each is free to either develop the series’ central story or to meander off into entirely different self-contained ones. 


(2nd reading) May 2010