Sword-Dancer

by Jennifer Roberson

Cover image

Series: Sword #1
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: September 1986
ISBN: 0-88677-376-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 286

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After a rather hard week, I decided to treat myself to some comfort reading. I have the latest (and last) book in the Sword series but wanted to re-read the series first to refresh my memory since it had been quite a long time.

Sword-Dancer is pure sword-and-sorcery fantasy adventure fare and unashamed of it. A mysterious and beautiful female sword-dancer (essentially a cross between a professional duellist and a mercenary for hire, a profession in which women are unknown) comes out of the cold North and hires Sandtiger, a hard-bitten, veteran southern sword-dancer, to escort her across the desert to find her lost brother. They fight their way through the perils of the Punja, getting to know each other, exchanging past histories, and finally falling in love in the process. It's not a particularly challenging story.

What it is, though, is an excellent example of first-person narration. The story is told from Sandtiger's perspective, and not in a detached or polished tone. He's an irrascable, sexist, opinionated desert rat who starts off with admiring Del's body, expressing immodest pride in his own abilities, and leaving his thoughts tumbling over each other on the page. He's always looking for a sarcastic comment or a pithy phrase, even in the middle of his own internal monologues. It's a beautiful job of characterization, maintained straight through to the final page.

Equally impressive is how clearly the northerner Del comes across. We get to know her through Tiger's eyes and Tiger's biases, but Roberson gives her memorable attitudes and a dry whit. Through the whole book, the dialogue is just fun; the characters don't drone on, there's little infodumping even with the amount of flashbacks and history that have to be filled in, and both Tiger and Del are good at sarcastic banter.

Sword-Dancer lives and dies on its characterization; either you enjoy Tiger's style of narration or you don't. There's not a lot else to salvage it, as neither the characters nor the plot are particularly deep or surprising. Sure, Tiger and Del have their dark pasts and twisted emotions, but Roberson keeps them straightforward and true to their easy-to-grasp characters. The plot has a bit of a random encounter feel to it, and is at times strung together with amazing coincidences. It's an adventure story; bad things happen, the heroes survive by being a little better and a little faster than everyone else, and after the darkest moment for both they triumph in the end (albeit with a nice twist to the main plot), leaving a hook for the next book.

It's just done so very well.

Of note is that, while Roberson is not exceptionally good at languages, she does have a good ear for dropping the odd word and not having it sound out of place. I found the few made-up words charming and quickly understandable rather than just annoying (probably because she kept them to terms that were obvious in context, rather than annoying the reader by renaming months and days of the week). The single exception is Tiger's insistance on using the term hoolies for hell, which drives me nuts every time I read this series. One does get used to it after a while, but it rings badly flat and Tiger uses it all the time.

The story lost a fair bit on a re-read because a lot of the dramatic tension comes from revelations of the pasts of the characters that are well-known (and belabored a bit) in later books. It's still a fun read, though, and a great example of its genre. If you're looking for a good light fantasy adventure with some non-soppy romance, I recommend it.

Followed by Sword-Singer.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-07-29

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21