The Third Book of Swords

by Fred Saberhagen

Cover image

Series: Swords #3
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: August 1984
Printing: August 1985
ISBN: 0-812-55307-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 320

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This is the third book (shocking) in the Swords series. It was the first Fred Saberhagen novel I read, many years ago, and while it's clearly intended to be read in order in the series, it is comprehensible by itself (although one has to figure out the players on the fly). The three books of this series are quite different structurally from each other and separated by a fair bit of time, and Saberhagen's characters aren't the sort where knowing their past adds a great deal to the story.

Here at last is the reason for reading the Swords series at all. The First Book of Swords is mediocre; The Second Book of Swords is an improvement, but it's still someone's D&D game. This was the book of the series that I read first, and is the reason why I went back to find all the rest, read Empire of the East, and bought and read all the remaining books in the series. That being said, I was a bit less picky as a teenager; re-reading it now, the lack of deep characterization bothers me more.

As with the rest of the series, this is not a strong character drama, although Saberhagen introduces a few good new characters and introduces some not-entirely-stock complexity. The heroes of this series, though, are the swords, and this book sees the introduction of the final four and in many ways the most interesting. Doomgiver and Woundhealer start the story off a bit slowly, and there's a good bit of wandering about the map (which isn't included in the book and would have been helpful), but then Soulcutter and the Mindsword are introduced and the stakes become very high indeed. Both Draffut and the gods become major players, the war that has been brewing for the rest of the series comes to a head, some of the puzzle of the gods is resolved, and Swords change hands, move around, and come into conflict far more satisfyingly than in the previous volumes.

The attraction and the drawback of this book, and this series, is that it's nearly pure gadget fiction. Saberhagen is a competent writer, but not one who will often make the reader sit up and take notice of a particular passage. His characters are a bit more differentiated in this book than in the previous ones, and I do like Mark and Kristin's rocky love affair. But the characters have little control over the plot; nearly everything happens at authorial whim via the swords, which are a remarkable collection of plot devices. Either you love learning about the tricks of the swords and their interactions or you don't. It's here that Saberhagen reaches the pinnacle of the Game and the swords develop the most personality; it's here that I start hating some of them (particularly Shieldbreaker) and loving others. It's also the only book featuring Doomgiver, the most underused and interesting sword of the lot as far as I'm concerned. (And it mercifully features little of Dragonslicer.)

Here also, the Emperor finally becomes the major player that he stays for the rest of the series and Saberhagen starts dropping enticing hints about his nature and his role. His interactions with the Silver Queen are wonderful, as is the way that he shows up on battlefields at just the right times. Of all the characters in this series, the Emperor is the most like the swords themselves: a bit of a plot device, a bit like a human Coinspinner with his own agenda. That may be why he's the most intriguing and best-written character of the series and plays a prominent role in most of the scenes that surpass Saberhagen's normal functional style to achieve poignancy.

I normally don't recommend reading books out of order, but if you're not sure you want to read this series and don't want to wade through the weaker earlier books, this isn't a bad place to start. If you don't like this book, the entire series is probably not for you. If you do, you may want to seek out the others.

Followed by The First Book of Lost Swords.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-06-29

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21