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Literature / Book of Swords

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A series of fantasy novels written by Fred Saberhagen between 1984 and 1999. A distant sequel to his Empire of the East trilogy. The novels are as follows:

  • 1st Book of Swords, 1984
  • 2nd Book of Swords, 1985
  • 3rd Book of Swords, 1985
    • Each of these were complied into the Complete Book of Swords, 1985.

  • 1st Book of Lost Swords: Woundhealer's Story, 1988
  • 2nd Book of Lost Swords: Sightblinder's Story, 1988
  • 3rd Book of Lost Swords: Stonecutter's Story, 1988
  • 4th Book of Lost Swords: Farslayer's Story, 1989
  • 5th Book of Lost Swords: Coinspinner's Story, 1989
  • 6th Book of Lost Swords: Mindsword's Story, 1990
  • 7th Book of Lost Swords: Wayfinder's Story, 1992
  • Last Book of Lost Swords: Shieldbreaker's Story, 1993

The Gods decide to have a game. The playing pieces are humans, armed with twelve nigh-indestructible swords forged by Vulcan, imbued with unique powers.

Each sword is surgically sharp, perfectly crafted, and, as mentioned, nigh-invulnerable. Each also possesses a special ability unique to the sword. They may be identified by a symbol engraved in white upon their otherwise black hilt, or in the case of Soulcutter, a lack thereof.

    The Swords 

  • Coinspinner, the Sword of Chance.
    • Symbol: A pair of dice.
    • Pros: Provides unnaturally good luck to its bearer, and bad luck to his or her foes. Can also be used as a less-powerful version of Wayfinder (presumably by steering its bearer away from "unlucky" routes).
    • Cons: If the bearer takes his eyes off Coinspinner, even for one second, it can disappear and reappear anywhere in the world, even into a rival's hands. It often inflicts bad luck on the former bearer before it goes, especially if the bearer tried to keep the sword from leaving.
  • Doomgiver, the Sword of Justice.
    • Symbol: A hollow circle.
    • Pros: Turns any attack upon its bearer back onto the attacker, including attacks that do not necessarily damage the bearer. (e.g. one of the Goddesses attempted to use magic to make a bearer fall in love with her to the point of being her slave — and ended up enslaved herself).
    • Cons: Doesn't protect against self-inflicted wounds. One villain in-story believed that if he took Doomgiver it would punish him for his evil deeds, so theoretically it may pay back the wielder's attacks as well.
  • Dragonslicer, the Sword of Heroes.
  • Farslayer, the Sword of Vengeance.
    • Symbol: Concentric circles, similar to a bull's-eye.
    • Pros: Swing the blade in a circle and wish to kill someone and the sword will shriek through the air, sending a rainbow trail behind, on a direct and unstoppable journey straight into its target's heart (or its equivalent).
    • Cons: ... where it will stay. Which means that anyone nearby, say a distraught loved one, can use it. Usually against the person who used it last. It will even work if the distraught loved one has no idea who sent the blade and just says "kill whoever did this".
  • Mindsword, the Sword of Glory (Or, pejoratively, "Skulltwister, the Sword of Madness")
    • Symbol: A flying banner. The blade itself is impossibly beautiful.
    • Pros: Unsheathed, it emits the sound of a cheering crowd, and compels fanatical devotion toward its bearer upon all who can see or hear it. Even sheathed, it works on some level. Wounds caused by its edge also fester horribly.
    • Cons: This devotion can go to the user's head, and the effects start wearing off after three days away from its influence. Also, the Sword makes its victims fanatically devoted to the wielder but not obedient, which means they may choose to do something other than what the wielder wants if they think it's in their "lord's" best interest. And said fanaticism does not yield the clearest judgments.
  • Shieldbreaker, the Sword of Force (also, "The Widowmaker").
    • Symbol: A hammer.
    • Pros: Confers immunity to all weapons, claws, teeth, and other Swords. Substitutes its own abilities for the bearer's skill, blocking attacks and striking with superhuman strength and speed. Anything blocked or struck by Shieldbreaker will explode, generally severely harming or killing the opponent. This is the only way to destroy another Sword. Any opposing magic is negated harmlessly.
    • Cons: "No weapon" can stand up to it, literally; Shieldbreaker can't harm unarmed opponents, or protect against unarmed attacks. Once drawn, Shieldbreaker can't be dropped when enemies are nearby, whom it will kill even if the user wants to show mercy. It also drains its wielder's stamina, eventually causing death by exhaustion, and making unarmed attacks even harder to stop. note 
  • Sightblinder, the Sword of Stealth (or Deception).
    • Symbol: A stylized human eye.
    • Pros: People perceive the bearer as the person or entity they love and trust the most, or as the one they fear the most. The bearer's senses are sharpened, and they gain the ability to see through illusions (providing some protection from the Mindsword and Soulcutter).
    • Cons: The bearer has no control over how he appears, and since he often appears to be something fearsome or wonderful, the Sword is not particularly stealthy; its wielder is better off trying to brazen it out.
  • Soulcutter, the Sword of Despair (also, the Tyrant's Blade)
    • Symbol: None. The blade lacks any luster.
    • Pros: When unsheathed, the sword projects a field of total despair and apathy so pervasive that anything caught in its range can do nothing except lie down and wait to die...
    • Cons: ... including the bearer. Therefore, drawing the sword is generally the last decision anyone makes, and the mere threat of someone possessing it is often a big deal. Also causes Rapid Aging in its wielder, likely because they're at the focal point of its effect.
  • Stonecutter, the Sword of Siege.
  • Townsaver, the Sword of Fury.
    • Symbol: A sword raised a stylized segment of castle wall.
    • Pros: When defending unarmed people in a fixed position, Townsaver turns its bearer into a One-Man Army, striking with inhuman strength and speed, and keeps him from succumbing to his wounds until the end of battle.
    • Cons: Besides that last bit, Townsaver does nothing to protect its bearer. It will even place its bearer between an attack and the people he's protecting. As with Shieldbreaker, the user is also compelled to finish a battle once entered, and will ignore any wound other than a killing blow. With all of this, it's not uncommon for the wielder to draw it, fight off an army single-handedly, and then instantly die of exhaustion or their wounds once the battle is over.
  • Wayfinder, the Sword of Wisdom.
    • Symbol: Arrow.
    • Pros: Wayfinder may guide its bearer to any goal they want, and takes into account anything they need to reach it. It may also be used for divinatory purposes (e.g. "Which person is lying to me?").
    • Cons: Wayfinder picks the swiftest path... but the swiftest is not the safest. In fact, it seems to deliberately choose the worst and riskiest way possible to get there.
  • Woundhealer, the Sword of Mercy (Or Love, or Healing).

Vulcan enlists a few humans to help with his creating, and when he's done, he uses the bodies of all his helpers, save one, to quench the blades. The one he spares, he cuts off his arm and leaves him with Townsaver. Life proceeds as normal, until the local lord decides he wants to have a look at this commoner's God-Forged sword.

At this point, the War for the Swords begins in earnest. All the high and mighty, rich and powerful people seek the various swords for themselves.

A commonly-known song describes the Swords, providing hints as to their powers and weaknesses, and goes thus:


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.

This series provides examples of:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: Several of the Swords inside their specialties and to a lesser degree outside of them, with the sole exception of Woundhealer, which is a Healing Shiv, and cannot harm a living creature. Bear in mind that Woundhealer is still very sharp, and will cut through non-living matter just fine.
  • After the End: The novels are set around 50,000 years after a nuclear apocalypse destroyed our civilization sometime in our Third Millennium. Among other things, demons were created by nuclear explosions.
  • A God Am I:
    • Anyone who uses the Mindsword. Its ability is to turn everyone within a couple hundred yards into mindlessly devoted slaves to the wielder. A few days with the hangers-on, and the wielder starts to believe the hype.
    • Baron Doon, when he finds a cache of four swords. Given that it included both Doomgiver and Shieldbreaker, the Infinity Plus One Swords even among the twelve, he may have had a point.
  • Aerith and Bob: The names of the main characters include ones like Mark, Ben on one hand and Vilkata and Yambu on the other.
  • The Almighty Dollar: The Blue Temple worships money and wealth.
  • Anti-Climax: The main series (the first three books) spends the whole time building up and building up to a somewhat weak ending that ends more on a whimper.
  • Artifact of Doom: The whole purpose of Soulcutter, and the other swords have traits of this. Mark in particular has a few choice things to say about Townsaver shortly after he gets it.
  • Attack Reflector: Doomgiver. It understands the attacker's intent and will reflect any threat. A dropped boulder? Doomgiver will send it flying right back up to hit the dropper, even if it has to turn corners. A demon threatens to turn your body inside out, eat you, and digest you for a million years? We'll just say that being turned inside out and forced into your own stomach is not comfortable. A succubus tries to make you fall in love with her? She falls in love with you. A few Gods are planning to deprive you of your Sword? They lose theirs.
  • Badass Boast: Shieldbreaker's verse in the Song of Swords, the only one from a Sword's own perspective, boasts of its ability to destroy any foe or weapon raised against it.
  • Big Bad: Several — Vilkata and Yambu in the first trilogy, the immortal wizard Wood for most of the Lost Swords iterations.
  • Blatant Lies: The name of the country of Tasavalta literally means "republic" in Finnish. Tasavalta is a hereditary monarchy, the exact opposite of a republic.
  • Blessed with Suck: Most people who get one of these swords. Sure, they are awesome, but they have cons and so many other people want to take it away from you.
  • Book Ends: The main story begins and ends with Vulcan crawling along the same mountainside looking for fire.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": Ridingbeasts, woolbeasts, milkbeasts, etc. Are they horses/sheep/cows?
  • The Catchphrase Catches On: Whenever someone uses Farslayer, they recite the second line of its verse in the poem. Since the water sprite in Farslayer's Story simply threw it and it worked anyway to kill a demon, the catch phrase doesn't appear to be more than a tradition.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: The source of the Gods' power, much to their surprise. Humanity's beliefs change so much that the third of the original books ends with Vulcan dying from exposure on the same mountain he had no trouble forging the swords on at the start of the series.
  • Clingy MacGuffin: Once the battle starts, the wielder of Shieldbreaker cannot let it go. And it can only harm armed opponents. So, one man can take on an army of soldiers armed to the teeth, demons, even the Gods themselves, but don't let the unarmed man get a stranglehold. Townsaver and Dragonslicer exhibit similar clinginess to a slightly lesser degree.
  • Cool Mask: The Emperor is said to wear masks from time to time.
  • Cool Sword: All twelve swords naturally qualify, with powers ranging from killing anyone anywhere in the world to cutting through stone like butter to instantly beating any other weapon, including the other swords.
  • Crippling Overspecialization: Several of the Swords fall under this:
    • Stonecutter, which can slice through stone as though it were butter, but has no other powers.
    • Dragonslicer, which can kill dragons. Since pretty much all dragons have been killed by the end of series, the Sword of Heroes is out of a job.
    • Wayfinder is a lesser example as it can be used to find almost anything, but its use tends to be a matter of risk/reward consideration.
    • Shieldbreaker, although it's not obvious at first because "beats any other weapon" seems at a glance to be unbelievably broad... but it forces the wielder to keep fighting, and is completely ineffective against anyone unarmed.
  • Cycle of Revenge: Farslayer remains in the body of the last person it killed until somebody removes it, commonly a friend of the last victim, who then orders Farslayer to kill the person who threw it at their friend — and vague instructions to kill the party responsible without the wielder knowing their identity will suffice. One of his friends can then pick up Farslayer and send it back, and so on until one side runs out of vengeance-minded friends and family in the immediate vicinity.
  • Deal with the Devil: Vilkata cuts out his own eyes as a sacrifice in order to curse an enemy. Thereafter, various demons provide vision for him. Vilkata throws his pet demons a bone every now and then in fresh human flesh to torture.
  • Deus ex Machina: Swords just randomly appear in the weirdest places... which, since the whole thing is a game run by the gods anyway, makes a fair bit of sense. This is also explicitly Coinspinner's stated power — it does not like being tied to any one owner, and will take any chance it has to vanish from their possession and reappear randomly elsewhere in the world.
  • Determinator:
    • Baron Doon, who goes three rounds against Shieldbreaker by using sheer cussedness (and dropping his destroyed weapons before the Sword can finish the job).
    • A man wielding Shieldbreaker or Townsaver in a battle literally cannot stop fighting so long as the conditions that activate the sword (an opponent to fight or an innocent to protect) hold true. Wielders of Townsaver have even ignored mortal wounds to keep fighting (and then drop dead moments after the battle ends).
  • Dual Wielding: Difficult for most people to do with Swords. Causes intense nausea, but some people can handle it. However, the major drawback is that this significantly amplifies the stamina drain of wielding just one Sword, causing even people that can pull it off to tire very quickly. Dual-wielding Swords can have its advantages if the powers complement each other. For instance, dual wielding Shieldbreaker and Soulcutter prevents one from being affected by Soulcutter's life-draining power.
  • Dude, She's Like in a Coma: Gender-flipped. Kristin has sex with Mark while he's unconscious with fever in order to summon Aphrodite and save him.
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly: The gods are birthed and sustained from human reverence and belief. As a result of changing human opinions about them, the gods start to actually change.
  • Gold Fever: One of the barriers to success in robbing the Blue Temple. It causes several soldiers turned thieves Mark was working with to stupidly murder an ally before he can show them the way out, even though there was plenty of treasure there for all of them.
  • Happily Married: Played straight and averted. Mark and Kristin are happily married, except when she is under the spell of the Mindsword. In the latter half of the series, Ben spends most of his time adventuring specifically to avoid his wife and child. Jord and Mala seem to get along well despite their marriage having been arranged without much input by them.
  • Healing Shiv: Woundhealer's power is to heal any injury short of death, including inborn physical and mental disabilities, in anyone cut by its blade. At one point someone rams it through his own heart and jumps off a cliff to escape.
  • Heart Is an Awesome Power: The power of the human heart combined with Woundhealer destroys Shieldbreaker.
  • Here There Were Dragons: By the end of the series, Dragonslicer has proven so effective at killing dragons that it has almost made itself obsolete.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Several times, most notably the gods getting brainwashed, cursed and/or killed by the swords they had Vulcan create.
  • Holding Back the Phlebotinum: Doomgiver renders its user practically invulnerable to anyone or anything not called Shieldbreaker, but the characters who get it rarely seem to realize how useful it is.
  • Intimate Healing: Kristin gives Mark her virginity in order to summon Aphrodite, in the hopes that the goddess can heal the poisoned wound Mark had received from the Mindsword. It works.
  • Irony: The gods create the Swords and start the Game of Swords to amuse themselves at humanity's expense. However, the influence of the Swords on the world causes humanity to turn their focus away from the gods, bringing about their end.
  • Jerkass Gods: At their nicest the gods are often meddlesome and serious effort has to be made to get their attention to do something nice. At their worst they can be incredibly petty and cruel, and they're always scheming against each other.
  • Kill It Through Its Stomach: In Woundhealer's Story, an enormous dragon swallows Zoltan whole. Fortunately, Zoltan has Dragonslicer with him, and is able to cut his way out with it.
  • Large Ham: A Large Ham? Hahaha! Ask the mighty Mars, the War God, and none other, why this trope appears here! And gods and demons, Baron Doon as well, who will defy all the gods to be named the true god of ham! Kneel down and acknowledge him now, demons blast you, or he'll spit you on the end of a meter of god-forged steel, which is doubly magic!
  • Last of His Kind: By the end of the last book, Woundhealer is the last Sword left.
  • Legend Fades to Myth: By the time the series takes place, the people only have very vague stories of what actually happened in Empire of the East.
  • Lost Technology: Earth, 50,000 years in the future. Technology is replaced by magic. Nuclear explosions have become demons. ARDNEH = God = a computer program designed by the United States.
  • Luke Nounverber: All of the Swords, with the exception of the Mindsword. Of course, its alternate name, "Skulltwister" does fit the pattern.
  • Mermaid Problem: Pops up, with sad results, in Farslayer's Story. A wizard is able to temporarily transform a mermaid(who are girls under a curse here) back into a human so he can sleep with her. Unfortunately the wizard is dead at the end of the book and the mermaid in question is now pregnant...
  • The Metric System Is Here to Stay : The Swords are described, in a setting fifty millennia and change in the future, as "a full meter of god-forged steel".
  • Mutually Assured Destruction:
    • Soulcutter is roughly as dangerous as a nuclear weapon that you have to detonate by hand, being an almost inescapably fatal Emotion Bomb.
    • Heavily implied to be the inevitable outcome when a conflict involves Farslayer: Going back and forth until there's no one left on either side to pick Farslayer up.
  • Naked First Impression: Mark's first encounter with Kristin. Given the circumstances—that they were in the middle of an enemy camp, that Mark needed all of his willpower even with Sightblinder not to give in to the Mindsword, and that Kristin was going to be tortured to death if he didn't get her out quickly — Mark paid hardly any attention to her nudity, save for grabbing an extra cloak on the way out.
  • Named Weapons: The swords each have their own unique names.
  • No Honor Among Thieves: The Seventh Seal of Benambra's Gold — the greed of thieves. Once the party reaches the vault, they all turn on each other over the gold, despite there being more than all of them combined could possibly take. Mark and Ben (Who take all the Swords they find and what cash they can conveniently carry without bickering over individual pieces of treasure) are the only ones to make it out alive.
  • Oddball in the Series: Stonecutter's Story. Its a detective story with no connection to the larger plotlines of the Lost Swords series and with none of the regular characters.
  • Only Sane Man: Apollo seems to be this, at least part of the time, for the gods. He's the only one who seems be trying to make a real effort to convince the rest to abandon the game they've been playing and just get rid of the swords once it's clear that the swords can actually kill them.
  • Our Demons Are Different: These ones were somehow formed from nuclear explosions and for Shieldbreaker's purposes every demon counts as a weapon.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: Their growth is actually a bit like tadpoles. They're almost completely impervious to regular weapons and incredibly dangerous, but someone armed with the Sword Dragonslicer can kill them with ease, something that has rendered them nearly extinct by the end of the series.
  • Poisoned Weapons: The Mindsword. The wounds it causes fester horribly.
  • Puff of Logic: This is how Shieldbreaker is destroyed. The main character is stabbed by Shieldbreaker while Woundhealer is jammed through his heart. Shieldbreaker doesn't regard Woundhealer as a weapon since it's a Healing Shiv, but he grabs at Shieldbreaker as he's hit, so he is armed — with Shieldbreaker. And Shieldbreaker destroys any weapon its target is armed with.
  • Rapid Aging: When Soulcutter is drawn it causes its wielder to age at a highly accelerated rate.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Sir Andrew. He even has the word 'kind' usually added to his name. Unfortunately he's a relatively small fish surrounded by unpleasant and powerful nobles.
  • Rule of Seven: The seven sealings of Benambra's Gold. They are: The concealed location of the facility guarding it, the dragon guarding the gate, a maze, a garrison of guards, a magical barrier, a demon guarding the vault proper, and the greed of any thieves who make it that far causing them to turn upon themselves.
  • Soul Jar: Demon's hearts are tied to mundane objects. Farslayer can instinctively identify what they are and go for that rather than harmlessly impaling the demon's physical body, which could be a long way off.
  • Stout Strength: Ben, one of the main characters, is a tall, broad guy with a stupid-looking face. If he's wearing something that shows his general outline, he looks fat, and his arms and legs are so thick in proportion to their length they look stubby. Almost none of it is fat, though; Ben is much, much stronger than carnival strongmen, and gifted with above-average intelligence to boot.
  • Suddenly Suitable Suitor: Mark for Kristin, once the identity of his father is revealed.
  • Sword of Plot Advancement: All of the Twelve Swords, even in-universe. They were made by the Gods to facilitate the Game.
  • Thunderbolt Iron: Vulcan used a highly magical form of this material as the first ingredient in all of the swords.
  • Throwing Your Sword Always Works: This is Farslayer's power, and we mean it always works. Even if the target is halfway around the world, underground, defended by powerful magic, and one of the Gods. The difficulty being that it's not Mjölnir, it doesn't come back and it has no particular loyalty to the thrower. Once thrown, the magical sniper sword is now sitting in your enemy's camp and through your enemy's heart, yes, but also in easy reach of any of his allies or grief-stricken family members with a motive to avenge their fallen loved one.
  • Too Awesome to Use: Soulcutter in particular has an extreme life-draining effect on everyone nearby, including the wielder. As such it's often used only as a last resort. Likewise Doomgiver can repel any and all attacks (except from Shieldbreaker), yet is destroyed early on in the series so its full might is rarely used.
  • Treacherous Advisor: The Sword of Wisdom can guide its bearer to absolutely anything. But unless you remember to specify a safe path to your goal, it will always choose the most dangerous road that will lead to your ultimate destination. And even then, there's no guarantee you won't die immediately after getting there, and thus are no longer being guided to safety.
  • Treacherous Spirit Chase: In Woundhealer's Story, one of the main characters keeps seeing tantalizing hints of a specific girl he vaguely recognizes. Every time he comes across evidence of her, it mysteriously turns into a mundane material that has reason to be there already. Hair caught in a rough bush turns to spiderweb in his hands, fabric turns to moss, etc, and each time he is drawn further into the forest. Only after he's magically paralyzed by an enemy does he realize the entire thing had been an evil enchantment designed to lure him there.
  • Turned Against Their Masters: The Swords work against the Gods, too. By the end of the third book, all the gods have either been killed, or faded away from lack of belief.
  • Unbreakable Weapons: The Swords are invulnerable to everything except each other. This means that even when their powers aren't useful to the current situation, they're still a good weapon to have in hand (among other things, being invulnerable means not only that they can't be broken, but they don't lose their edge - staying sharp forever).
  • Ultimate Blacksmith: Vulcan, who made the Swords. Played with, however, in that he could only do it once and came to forget how he did it.
  • Virgin Sacrifice: Baron Doon attempts to do this out of desperation when cornered by a demon, but thankfully he's interrupted before he can go through with it. Kristin, meanwhile, uses her own virginity for a different sort of sacrifice in a situation that's almost as bad.
  • Weapon of X-Slaying: Dragonslicer exists to bring dragons down, and can slice through their scales, flesh and bones with ease.
  • Weapons Breaking Weapons: Any weapon struck by Shieldbreaker, the Sword of Force, will instantly explode. This makes its wielders almost invincible in melee combat and is the only way to destroy the other enchanted Swords.

Alternative Title(s): Books Of Swords