Today we are joined by guest author Anna Kashina—whose latest book, Shadowblade, is out now from Angry Robot—as she discusses the skillful presentation of sword fighting in fantasy novels.
My favorite genre—as a writer and as a reader—is historical adventure fantasy. I tend to pick medieval multicultural settings, with the level of technology preceding the invention of the firearms. As a writer, this gives me one very important tool: blades.
Top-level blademasters are recurring characters in my books, and central to my most recent novel, Shadowblade. For me this means doing lots of research about blade fighting techniques so that I can then pick the best weapons for all my characters, and populate the book with the coolest blade fights I can come up with.
Blade fighting is not just about weapons. There’s so much more that goes into being versatile and skilled with blades. One has to have superb reflexes, to be street-smart and stealthy, and to be a very quick thinker, among many other things. In my mind, this is also an irresistible set of qualities for a strong character.
I rarely go into all the technical details when describing blade fights. After all, it’s all about characters; the fights are only one tool that show off their interactions and their special qualities. Accordingly, my approach to describing blade fights usually goes one of two ways: the first is using the point of view of an expert who doesn’t see the need to focus on every move, but instead notes only a few that are especially well done. The second is from an amateur’s perspective, offering unbiased reactions without any technical knowledge, and thus relating directly to those readers who aren’t proficient with weapons themselves. (There is also a third way I’ve seen employed effectively, one that determinedly avoids describing any fights at all, only the results, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination.)
In Shadowblade, a young girl, Naia, in training to become a top-level blademaster, accepts a very high profile, near-suicidal assignment for the Empire. Writing this book, I had an opportunity to employ both of my favorite points of view to describe blade fights. Naia starts out an amateur and can only admire the skill of some of the top warriors in her Order. Later on, as a ranked professional, she shifts into the expert mode. Being able to use both approaches in application to the same characterwas very gratifying.
I feel very special when I find a book that resonates with my own way of thinking about blade fights in fiction—but I find they are rare indeed. Here is a very short list of books that I think handle the subject well.
The Way of Shadows, by Brent Weeks
Highly skilled fights are the absolute centerpiece of this book, the story of a young street boy who escapes his gang and trains to become one of the most skilled assassins in the world. He goes through deadly challenges and humiliation, dangers and betrayal, and comes through it all as one of the best of the best. When you read this book, you believe that this is how this kind of training actually works; without glorifying the assassins’ profession, it carefully conveys the skill required to become a master. It’s not for the faint hearted, and on the gory side compared to the books I usually read, but the fights are worth it.
Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas
The main character, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien, starts off as a prisoner in the king’s salt mines. She is summoned by the Crown Prince to become his champion and face some of the worst in their kingdom to win the contest for her freedom. This book is a pure joy to read, and a great example of the very effective “expert” point of view: Celaena has finished her training and achieved her highly notorious reputation long before the start of the book. Every bit of her experience and skill shows—not just in the fights, but in every one of her interactions; she can keep people on their toes with just a glance. I highly recommend this book and the entire series it’s a part of.
Magic of Blood and Sea, by Cassandra Rose Clarke
Assassins are creatures of shadows and blood magic. Dying by an assassin’s hand is the ultimate way to die, because no one could possibly expect you to escape them. With this introduction, we meet Naji, an attractive, mysterious, and complex blood magician, who moves through the shadows to unseeingly approach his victims. A curse binds him to a young pirate girl, and they are forced to travel together until they can find a way to break the spell. All we see of Naji’s blade work are the occasional glints of his steel—he moves too fast for the eye to follow. With all that, the way his fights are described is just so compelling that it is impossible to stop reading. This is a great example that when the details are left to the imagination, the resulting scene can be even more powerful.
Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett
I am aware that this choice is surprising; I greatly admire Terry Pratchett’s work, but Night Watch, while being one of my favorites of his books, is not really about assassins or blade fights. Yet, I think of it as featuring one of the best ways to describe fights: through not showing them at all. One passing character in this book is Lord Vetinari—the criminal who will later become the most effective ruler of Ankh Morpork. In Night Watch he is a young assassin who trails the main character—later to be Captain Vimes—and provides him with unseen help out of the toughest situations. Through glimpses of Vetinari, we learn some scarce secrets of the trade, such as that assassins’ favorite color is not black, but dark blue, because that is the color that blends the best with the darkness. We see Vetinari mostly as a silent shadow glimpsed over the rooftops, disappearing too fast for the eye to trace; no one has ever seen Vetinari with a weapon in hand, a seemingly reassuring thought that instead seems ominous and alarming. Other Terry Pratchett Discworld books occasionally show assassins as well, but this one stands out as the most memorable.
A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
Here I mention an entire series rather than just one book, because to me it is really just one continuous, very long novel. (Incidentally, I am one of the nearly extinct dinosaurs who never watched a single episode of the Games of Thrones TV series, so everything I say here relies directly from the books.) There are many sword fights in A Game of Thrones, most of them gory and realistic. Real, non-choreographed sword fights are rarely as long and spectacular as they appear in movies. They usually end very quickly, and with lethal disfiguring injuries. There are many of those in this series, but only one swordsman stands out for me because of his pure skill: Jaime Lannister. (Curiously enough, he becomes truly interesting as a character only after he loses his hand, and hence his superb sword skill.) To me, the power comes in the way he thinks of the sword fights, especially when he misses being able to do it the way he used to. It made me think of lightness, and fluidity, and technique, and the fun behind it for someone like him. It’s testament to the author’s superb ability for character development that Jaime, who starts off as a despicable villain, can turn around and become the most likable characters, despite my full awareness that he cannot possibly end up well (no spoilers). His sword skill is an integral part of him, even after he loses the ability.
Anna Kashina writes historical adventure fantasy, featuring exotic settings, martial arts, assassins, and elements of romance. Her Majat Code series, published by Angry Robot Books, UK, received two Prism Awards in 2015. She is a Russian by origin, and a scientist in her day job, and she freely draws on these backgrounds in her writing. Shadowblade is available now.