The First Book of Lost Swords: Woundhealer's Story

by Fred Saberhagen
Series: Lost Swords 1
Reviewed date: 2020 Jan 24
Rating: 3
281 pages
cover art

Fantasy < science fiction
I spent most of this fantasy book trying to figure out the rules of the magical system. If there's magic, there's got to be a system and rules, right? Otherwise it's just the author making stuff up, and that's no fun.

No system of magic
There is no system of magic. The magic is just window dressing. It's generic meaningless fluff to create the ambiance. That's not a bad thing--it means that it doesn't materially affect the plot--but it was genuinely confusing to me as someone who was trying to piece it all together.

The swords
Except the swords. The only magic that matters is the swords. It's simple: there are twelve swords of power, and each sword has a short poem that describes its magical power. E.g., the sword Farslayer can be commanded to kill someone, and it will hunt down and kill that person, no matter where or how far away. Or the sword Dragonslicer--it can magically slice through a dragon's tough armor like a hot knife through butter. It's just a regular sword against anything else, but it can carve up a dragon like nothing else.

So the plot works because each sword has a special power, but that special power is limited in scope. The particulars of the sword's powers can make for an interesting story.

Everything else is just the setting.

The setting
The setting is a pre-industrial feudal world of small city-states ruled by kings. There is generic magic. There used to be gods, but people killed them. There are twelve swords of power, and possessing a sword (or two or three) can be a real boon to a local king; it helps him hang on to power because nobody wants to wage war against someone wielding a Sword of Power.

People walk or ride, there are no motor vehicles. There is no heavy industry. A medium-sized army is a few hundred mounted men; a large one perhaps a few thousand. The height of technology is semi-intelligent birds trained to deliver messages quickly across great distances.

In all, a pretty standard fantasy world.

Oh, and there are dragons.

There are no horses in this stock fantasy world. No, instead there are riding-beasts. Riding-beasts are not horses, but are exactly like horses.

They are beasts of burden. They are relatively intelligent animals but not smart enough to talk. They are covered in hair. They are kept in stables. Riding gear is a saddle and reins. They have hooves.

Totally not horses though.

Riding-beasts wear iron shoes. Probably called riding-beast-shoes. I imagine that in this fantasy world the people might have a game they play in which they throw riding-beast-shoes and try to hook them around a post.

Riding-beasts still aren't horses though.

It's a decent story though.
There's a prince (Mark) with a disabled son (Adrian) and there is magic, but the magic is nebulous and unexplained. Except for one thing: there are magical swords of power. Forged by the Gods, each sword has one special power.

Mark is seeking the sword Woundhealer to heal his son's disabilities.

While Mark is off seeking Woundhealer, Zoltan is on his own quest. But Zoltan's quest is idiotic and makes no sense because, you see, Zoltan got *gasp* accidentally enchanted. So he wandered off alone following a strange girl who (probably) doesn't exist. He overheard the wizard Burslem talk to a god, got kidnapped by Burslem, and magically freed by a mysterious old man.

Baron Amintor has already stolen Woundhealer from the White Temple, and Prince Mark is pursuing him. The Baron sets an ambush, which Mark defeats with help from his magic sword Shieldbreaker. Mark captures two prisoners, who he kills after perfunctory interrogation. Am I supposed to think he's a tough guy? I think he's a murderer.

The Baron and Mark apparently have history from long ago, and are natural enemies.

The magic system is nebulous and ill-defined. Wizards can do magic by waving their hands and sometimes throwing powders into the air. Magic can operate at a distance. It can affect the mind, causing compulsions, mental confusion, paralysis, or sleep. It can affect physical reality, shifting a stream's course. I can detect no limits to magic as of yet, or any rules. If a wizard concentrates really hard he can do it.

Strange wizards speaking in riddles delivering swords is no basis for a coherent plot. A coherent plot derives from a consistent system of magic, not from some disorganized fantasy quest.


Anyway. Zoltan finds a magic farm where Father Still welcomes him and Mother Still feeds him. Other strangers arrive and give Zoltan a Sword of power, which he is instructed to deliver to Prince Mark.

Amintor sends a flying reptile to deliver a message packet to Mark. The men are afraid of poison, so before they let Mark touch it, they make sure it’s safe. How? Magic. What kind exactly? Well: “When all due magical precautions had been taken [then] the packet was opened."

Saberhagen isn't even trying! The magic is just window dressing. There's no system at all.

Amintor offers to trade Woundhealer for Shieldbreaker, but it’s a ruse. While Mark considers the offer Aminor escapes. Meanwhile back in Tasavalta, the wizard Karel realizes that an ancient and powerful enemy has risen up against Mark, and perhaps not even the combined magic of all twelve Swords of Power—even if they possessed them all—would be able to stand against him.

Mark and Amintor skirmish, then end up agreeing to swap swords. Amintor takes Shieldbreaker, Mark gets Woundhealer.

But crushingly, Woundhealer does not heal Adrian.

Zoltan meets his mysterious girl again, who is enchanted and sometimes turns into a fish. (This is so dumb.) His Sword is Dragonslicer, and the old wizard appears and tells Zoltan to follow the trail of a dragon. So he finds one—a swath of destruction where a worm has dragged itself across the countryside. Conveniently, fishgirl knows how to kill a worm: during the heat of the day when it lies dormant in the shade.

Amintor and Burslem form a partnership.

Amintor threatens Prince Mark and Princess Kristin with Farslayer. The wizard Karel gets a clue: the strange wizard manipulating events and sending everybody places on strange quests is from a storybook that Karel made for the kids. He understands, but I don’t. But I’m starting to like this book now. It’s getting good—real good.

Ha! Amintor’s clothes keep changing colors because Burslem hasn’t made up his mind about how the army uniforms should look.

Amintor and Burslem move against Tasavalta with an army of three hundred men and one worm/dragon. Burslem reveals that he’s allied himself with a Master far more powerful and ancient than himself. Tension is rising. I sense a dramatic showdown and a big reveal to come.

Also, Amintor is a reasonable man, not a cartoon villain. He’s content as junior partner and fair in his dealings. I actually prefer him to Mark.

The worm gets away from Burslem’s magical control, Zoltan catches up to it and attacks it with Dragonslicer. Meanwhile Amintor has taken a few men to go capture Mark, who is pursuing him, while Burslem takes the remainder of the army and moves to capture Adrian and the detachment of fighters guarding him.

Heh. Amintor "centimetered himself backward." Not inched. Centimetered. There’s no coherent system of magic, but this fantasy world has gone all in on adopting the metric system.

Burslem betrays Amintor. Amintor and Mark fight. Amintor loses, and as he’s losing, activates Farslayer. (Against Burslem I presume.)

Burslem tries to kidnap Adrian. Strong magic stops him. Adrian is revealed as the puppet master. He’s so naturally adept at magic that he scarcely lives in the physical world. He never bothered to learn to use his eyes. But Adrian is fighting Burslem and his ancient Master.

Zoltan kills the worm. Karel meets the old man, the apparition created by Adrian.

Everyone meets at the Still farm. Karel explains that Adrian was never sick or disabled. He just hadn’t learned to see because he was learning to perceive the world through magical auras. Now that he’s grown up a bit and recognized the need to interact with the physical world, he will make rapid progress. But his gift for magic is incredible and will be developed further at a later date.

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