Ardneh's Sword

by Fred Saberhagen

Cover image

Series: Empire #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: May 2006
Printing: May 2007
ISBN: 0-765-35059-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 348

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First came what's now available as Empire of the East, originally a trilogy in a time where a book was expected to be much shorter. Then, building on the same universe but jumping far into its future, Saberhagen wrote the long and highly successful Swords series, fantasy against a backdrop of a previous lost civilization and one of the better instances of gadget fantasy available. Ardneh's Sword is Saberhagen's return to this universe after a long hiatus, a bridge between Empire of the East and the Swords books. It's readable on its own, but slight and rather uninteresting. This is a book aimed mainly at the fans of the earlier series who want to know more about the world background, and it's full of references and small details that only make sense to those familiar with the earlier books.

It's been about a thousand years since Ardneh's battle with Orcas, and while understanding of those events hasn't faded as far into mythology as it later would in the Swords books, the adventures of Rolf have already become scripture. Chance Rolfson is the son of a noble family, a direct descendent of Rolf himself (and rather tired of being reminded of it), and a member of an exploratory party attempting to find a rumored lost treasure of Ardneh. They are combing the land near the final battle, now called Ground Zero, to find clues to the location of this final gift from mankind's benefactor. Many people believe it to be gold, jewels, or some other traditional treasure, but the scholar who is leading the party hopes it is knowledge and understanding.

So they wander. Chance is given a mysterious object and then meets two strange children who tell him that it's Ardneh's Key. They run into bandits. They run into an encampment of an order of Servants of Ardneh (immediately recognizable to veteran Swords readers as the foundations of the White Temple). They wander around some more, now accompanied by a female acolyte. It takes about half the book for anything to start happening, and meanwhile the action is reminiscent of the boring stretches of the end of Empire of the East.

When finally matters heat up, they learn more about the strange children and their "grandmother," and both a demon and Draffut show up, Ardneh's Sword finally becomes interesting. Draffut, as usual, is one of the best parts of Saberhagen's mythology: comfortable, mysterious, and tragic by turns, he's a great character of power and adds a lot to the book. Sadly, he's about the only thing that stands out. Chance is another of Saberhagen's bland, uninteresting main characters: a polite teenage boy who is scared and uncertain but presses through anyway, much like Rolf, Mark, and many other Saberhagen leads. Abigail is a slight improvement, but mostly plays the token brave female teenager against Chance's male version. The villains, to give Saberhagen some credit, do have competing motives of their own and aren't always clearly villains, but all in all, the characters are weak. The plot is very simplistic, and even with complications and reversals feels more like a novella than a novel.

That leaves the background: does Saberhagen offer enough details about the open questions of both Empire of the East and the Swords to make this book worth reading? My answer is "eh." We do see tidbits of the origins of the Temples, which I found amusing, and we learn the origin of the Gods, which was far more interesting and fitting than I would have expected. But of the greatest open question, the Emperor, there's almost nothing, and what there is doesn't help and muddles the role and background of the Emperor even further. Since the Emperor and Draffut are my favorite characters by far and there's not much that can be added to Draffut (nor does Saberhagen attempt anything here), that left me quite unsatisfied. Unfortunately, given Saberhagen's recent death, we'll probably never know anything more about the Emperor for certain than we already know.

Ardneh's Sword reads more like the boring sections of Empire of the East than any of the Swords books and took me some wading to get through. Scene breaks are frequent and seem oddly random, the party spends more pointless time wandering through the wasteland, and Chance spends more time angsting about the right thing to do than doing anything. What bits of action there are do work, and the explanation of the gods is fitting and a good addition to the mythology, but I can't recommend the book only on that basis. This felt like wasted potential.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-10-23

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