I went through a phase in middle school or so where I burned through the local library’s fiction section. My comics reading was down to whatever I could borrow or trade from a friend, so there was always a limit on the new comics I had. Wikipedia (going by publication dates) puts this at around 1994-1995 at the earliest, but it was more likely 1996. You can carry more books if you go for them in mass-market paperback.
I think my library had a five book limit. My mom got me a library card and we’d go up every weekend or so and I’d get five books for myself and then try to use her limit up, too. I’d read the books over the course of that week and then want to go back to the library the next weekend. It got to the point where I was finally left to bicycle to the library, probably a good three miles or so, with a backpack on my back.
I read most of Stephen King’s books, skipping only the Dark Tower stuff really. I eased through Tom Clancy, Orson Scott Card, Douglas Adams, and Piers Anthony. Clancy peaked partway through the Jack Ryan series, Ender’s Game has two divergent sequel paths and the path with the talking portuguese tree pigs or whatever is awful, Douglas Adams is okay, and Piers Anthony is good at terrible puns. I also made it through most of those Star Wars and Forgotten Realms novels, not to mention the different Sherlock Holmes books and horror titles. Oh, and David Eddings. My taste, as ever, leans more toward the pulps than the canon.
(Just as a note, I can barely stand fantasy, high or non, nowadays. I hate elves and fairies and dwarves and stupid talking magic things and dragons and pointy ears and argh. I still haven’t watched Return of the King.)
I found one series at the library, though, that I’d been wanting to read for ages. One of my uncle’s had a box of old novels that met an unfortunate end one wet summer. There was a novel or two in there by a guy named Fred Saberhagen. One of them dealt with super-science death machines called Berserkers. They were out to eradicate all life. The other novel dealt with gods going to war and the people who followed them. Saberhagen was working the sci-fi in one hand and the fantasy in another, and I was hooked completely. Moreso on the fantasy than the scifi, but the scifi was also dope.
Little did I know that the book about the gods was part of a trilogy, which was in turn part of a larger series of books, twelve in all, or maybe seventeen, but only twelve of them interested me. This was The Book of Swords. Luckily, the Hampton, VA public library had the whole shebang.
I probably tore through the series in a month, probably less. The whole thing was just wall to wall awesome. It told the tale of twelve magic swords and the effect they have on certain people as they move in and out of their lives. Sure, it had the usual lost destiny, magic, blah, blah, blah of fantasy novels, but these magic swords were the bomb. The swords were explained and named in “The Song of Swords,” reprinted here for your pleasure:
Who holds Coinspinner knows good odds
Whichever move he make
But the Sword of Chance, to please the gods
Slips from him like a snake.
The Sword of Justice balances the pans
Of right and wrong, and foul and fair.
Eye for an eye, Doomgiver scans
The fate of all folk everywhere.
Dragonslicer, Dragonslicer, how d’you slay?
Reaching for the heart in behind the scales.
Dragonslicer, Dragonslicer, where do you stay?
In the belly of the giant that my blade impales.
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.
Whose flesh the Sword of Mercy hurts has drawn no breath;
Whose soul it heals has wandered in the night,
Has paid the summing of all debts in death
Has turned to see returning light.
The Mindsword spun in the dawn’s gray light
And men and demons knelt down before.
The Mindsword flashed in the midday bright
Gods joined the dance, and the march to war.
It spun in the twilight dim as well
And gods and men marched off to hell.
I shatter Swords and splinter spears;
None stands to Shieldbreaker.
My point’s the fount of orphans’ tears
My edge the widowmaker.
The Sword of Stealth is given to
One lonely and despised.
Sightblinder’s gifts: his eyes are keen
His nature is disguised.
The Tyrant’s Blade no blood hath spilled
But doth the spirit carve
Soulcutter hath no body killed
But many left to starve.
The Sword of Siege struck a hammer’s blow
With a crash, and a smash, and a tumbled wall.
Stonecutter laid a castle low
With a groan, and a roar, and a tower’s fall.
Long roads the Sword of Fury makes
Hard walls it builds around the soft
The fighter who Townsaver takes
Can bid farewell to home and croft.
Who holds Wayfinder finds good roads
Its master’s step is brisk.
The Sword of Wisdom lightens loads
But adds unto their risk.
I can’t help but think of Dragonslicer’s verse as being an off-kilter version of “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” The Song was what really sold me on the series, I think. It’s one of those that gives you just enough information and clues as to what could happen, but leaves it open for wonderings. Sightblinder alone I could see getting some dude into some Tactical Espionage Action, and Stonecutter in the hands of a Joan of Arc-alike would be awesome!
By the way, the Sword of Mercy, Woundhealer? You heal people by stabbing them with the sword.
This series also featured what was probably the first real swerve I ever really read in a book. Click below to see what I mean, but ending spoilers await.
The books take place roughly 50,000 years after the current day. A nuclear holocaust nearly annihilated the planet, but reality was rewritten by two supercomputers. These computers created the gods and demons that haunt the populace. The demons, in fact, are anthropomorphized radioactive clouds that sicken and poison anyone who gets near them.
Cold war paranoia with a fantasy twist!
Anyway, all of this added up to what is probably my favorite fantasy series. I’d love to go back and buy the novels, though much of the series is out of print, but what I’d really like is for it to get the Stephen King/Dark Tower treatment– a comic adaptation. The story had a lot of tricks and scenes in it that would work wonderfully in a comic. Just use the Book of Swords trilogy as a backdrop and get right into the Book of Lost Swords stories. There’s plenty of fodder for new stories there, too.
When’s the last time we got a good sword & sorcery book that wasn’t Conan-related, anyway?
I think that this could be an awesome thing and I’d love to see it happen. Not very likely at all, to be quite honest, but hey– them’s the breaks.