Monday, December 23, 2013

The Swordbearer by Glen Cook

In the second installment of my scholarly examination of Half Price Books’ list of 100 science fiction and fantasy novels worthy of “geeking out” over, I spent substantial time discussing Glen Cook’s Black Company series.  Over the last few days, between expeditions to shopping malls to buy Christmas gifts and marathon sessions washing dishes soiled during my wife's baking of mountains of cookies, cakes, pastries and fudge, I read a Glen Cook grim and cynical fantasy adventure set in a different world from that of the Black Company tales.

The main character of The Swordbearer is Gathrid, the crippled son of a knight charged with defense of a castle on the eastern border of the easternmost of a bunch of small loosely allied kingdoms. A huge army from the eastern empire of Ventimiglia, led by a bunch of undead wizards, comes to the castle and demands a famous magic sword. Gathrid’s father, like everybody else in the castle, has no idea where the magic sword is, and before long the Ventimiglians have taken the castle and wiped out all resistance in their search for the sword. Gathrid manages to escape, and hides in some caves where, wouldn’t you know it, he meets a dwarf who has been slumbering for centuries and is the custodian of a huge black magic sword.

The Swordbearer bears several resemblances to Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories. Elric wields a sentient black sword, Stormbringer, that drinks the souls of those it kills and invigorates Elric, and the sword Gathrid carries is quite similar. It cures Gathrid’s disabilities and gives him tremendous power, but also manipulates him in the interest of a cruel goddess. One of the interesting things in the book is how Gathrid gains the memories, even the personalities, of people he kills with the black sword; this is reminiscent of the alzabo episodes in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. Another interesting facet of the novel is the fact that the magic sword is famous, the subject of many old histories and tales, and Gathrid, and others familiar with the old tales, often wonder if he will suffer the same dreadful fate as earlier Swordbearers, or if he can somehow come up with a happy ending to his relationship with the sword.  (A major theme of the book is the question of to what extent mortals are at the mercy of the gods and fate, and how far can people decide their own destinies.)

Wielding the sword, Gathrid participates in the war between the invading easterners and the western kingdoms. Thanks to the sword, he can fight whole platoons single-handed. Also thanks to the sword, he accidentally kills his own sister (not unlike how Elric accidentally killed his cousin/girlfriend with Stormbringer). Gathrid then leaves the war behind, sneaking east towards the capital of Ventimiglia, hoping to find the ruins where the Ventimiglians dug up the undead wizards and the magical artifacts they are using to conquer the west. He rescues a girl from being sacrificed to a demon, and (this is one of the book’s most inspired elements) Gathrid takes along not only the girl, but the head of the demon, which is still alive and keeps up an abusive and jocular commentary for the rest of the adventure.

Cook’s writing is often “revisionist;” the good guys are often not all that good and the bad guys not all that bad, war is not heroic, politicians are all corrupt, the plight of poor peasants and other civilians is remarked upon, etc. Maybe critics would say this is a response to Vietnam and Watergate. So, when Gathrid gets to the heart of Ventimiglia he finds that the place isn’t so steeped in evil as he expected, and when he meets the leader of Ventimiglia he makes an alliance with him, and joins him in prosecuting a civil war against the now renegade army that is back west despoiling Gathrid’s homeland.  People, Gathrid included, often switch sides in this war, which is not about ideology or patriotism or economics or social forces, but about the ambition and insanity of the individuals at the top, kings, generals, wizards and deities.   

The Swordbearer is an enjoyable “dark” or “grim” fantasy adventure, but there isn’t much in it to mark it as special. I was entertained, so marginal thumbs up, but I'm not going to remember much of the plot, characters or setting.  There are many minor characters with odd names who appear briefly and then get killed and many vaguely described battles and sieges, but Cook doesn't put too much effort into creating personalities for the people or cultures for the cities and nations fighting these insane wars.  Cook isn't trying to paint sharp vivid pictures full of detail here, but rather a powerful mood or tone, and he uses bold and broad strokes and grinding repetition - battle after battle, tragedy after tragedy - to paint a dark, depressing, black canvas of doom.

I read the 1990 paperback from Tor of this 1982 novel, with a cover painting by Keith Berdak. I always think Berdak’s work looks amateurish, and wonder why publishers have used him on Cook’s books.

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