The First Swords is an omnibus edition containing the first three volumes of Fred Saberhagen’s BOOK OF SWORDS series. This volume earns a generous 2-1/2 stars, mostly because of the very good premise with the Swords and the setup in the first few chapters of Book One (in which the writing is markedly better than in later chapters — deadline rush?). In essence, the god Vulcan forges 12 magical swords, each with distinctive powers, and lets them loose in the world, in the hands of mortals.
From then on, though, the story’s a rapid, sometimes confusing yarn where things just don’t seem to add up. And, perhaps most glaringly in the light of modern fantasy standards, there is no distinctive characterization. The characters are just shells who ride the whirlwind of the narrative: Mark is a bland hero with a mysterious father; Ben is big and strong and not as dumb as he looks; Barbara is a woman who can use a sling; Baron Doon has a Machiavellian, treasure-hunting streak. That’s about it. (I think Nestor simply disappears after Book One. What the heck happened?)
In sum, it’s fun to watch the introduction of each Sword, its power and weakness, but the Swords are much more interesting than the characters.
I read The First Swords just to introduce myself to an older fantasy writer whom I hadn’t read before, and I read book four, Woundhealer’s Story, just as a follow-up, perhaps hoping the tale would get better. It didn’t. The story is simplistic, with an absolute minimum of characterization. There are a couple of clever moments (e.g. Amintor’s desperate gamble while holding Woundhealer), but overall, there’s just not much good fantasy “meat” here.
I might recommend this at a 8th-9th grade reading level, but even then, there’s much better stuff to read.