Glen Cook is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to get to but hadn’t until now. When I decided it was time for me to check him out, I chose to start with a standalone novel, to get the feel of his work, and then maybe move on to some of his series. But which one to pick, since he does have quite a few? The Swordbearer was my final choice, mostly due to the totally awesome Night Shade Books edition from last year. The Swordbearer was first published in 1982, before some of Cook’s more famous books like the Black Company.
Blurb: A young man’s dreams of warfare and glory turn into a bitter nightmare when an invading army, led by the Dark Champion Nevenka Nieroda and his twelve Dead Captains, the Toal, besieges his father’s feudal fortress. Nieroda and the Toal demand the surrender of an ancient artifact long-believed to be a myth. With the walls breached and his family slaughtered – or worse – Gathrid flees into the wilderness beyond his familiar castle wall. Lost and alone in the woods, hounded by the Dead Captains, Gathrid takes refuge in a vast cavern. There he discovers an ancient sword – DaubendieK, the Great Sword of Suchara, the fabled weapon wielded by the legendary tragic hero of an ancient age, Tereck Aarant. Daubendiek, a restless and thirsty lade, promises Gathrid the ability to claim his vengeance. But as he begins to take that vengeance, Gathrid starts to understand the terrible price that the sword will exact of him. Enemies soon become allies and strange bedfellows abound as the prophesies of an age swirled into chaos.
The first thing you must remember is that this was written in 1982, which means that the Swordbearer is full of clichés of epic fantasy. Yet, they aren’t really clichés since this book was written before most of the big epics – David Edding’s The Magician’s gambit was published that year, and Robert Jordan only started writing the Eye of the World in 1984 (to be published in 1990). Also, these clichés like prophecies, very old magical swords, repeating history/reincarnation, etc. don’t really appear as such in the text itself. They just make it a good old epic.
Cook writes fast. And I don’t mean in the sense that he writes books fast but in the sense that he has a terrifically quick pacing. Things fly by in the Swordbearer and you really have to be careful not to miss them. Yes it’s an epic with a journey across the world and all (a couple of times across in fact) but Cook doesn’t let the reader get bored for an instant. He skips over essentially all the time Gathrid spends travelling, unless some skirmish or important event happens. He uses that time instead to give some reflection time to Gathrid but overall it makes it a whole lot shorter. We still get all the juicy bits, so it feels just like a 700 page epic, in a grand total of 248 pages. That’s a pretty big difference in reading time. I’m not saying that 700 page epics are bad; I’m just saying that the way Cook does it in the Swordbearer works out well too.
One thing though that’s not so great is Cook’s random use of omniscient narrator. Throughout the whole book, the narrator is in the same place as Gathrid, and for the most part is telling the story from his point of view, but then occasionally, when Cook seems fit, we suddenly switch to the point of view of a different character. That’s fine if we make a designate an entire passage to that character but Cook just erratically, for a time sometimes as short as a couple of sentences, changes to another character’s viewpoint. Mind you it doesn’t happen very much, and when it does we get a significant bit of insight, but it happened enough for me to notice and get slightly annoyed. For some this might not be a problem at all.
I realize this is a strange kind of review for me to write, since it’s such an old book and I haven’t included it in my Classic Fantasy section (though I probably could) but I do read all these books primarily for my own enjoyment. Having now been introduced to Cook’s work I’ll soon be moving on to his latest series, The Instrumentalities of the Night, with the first book, The Tyranny of the Night (published 2006). If you’re like me and would like to discover Glen Cook, then the Swordbearer is perfect a introduction. Even if you’ve already read it, the Night Shade Books edition and Raymond Swanland’s cover illustration almost reason enough on their own to purchase this.
My Rating: 4 out of 5
Reading Age: 14 and up
Violence: Yes, lots
Sex/Language: None of either that easily comes to mind
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