This book is pretty meh. It’s good to read this one is as background for Gaal the Conqueror, but it could have used another good editing before publication. And I’m about to tell you all the important parts, so if you feel like reading some of the Archives, feel free to skip the hell out of the first one.
Here’s basically how the story goes:
John exists in 1920s-era Liverpool, living with his Granma because his mother is dead and his father went poof during the Great War. His Granma dies, and his creepy neighbor, Nicholas Slapfoot, is being all stalkery. John is chased and is somehow magically transported to Anthropos and has a brief encounter with the Changer (God). He is given the Sword of Geburah, making him the Sword Bearer. Then he’s captured and chucked into a cave to talk to Lord Lunacy (Satan), and he’s rather abruptly and hamfistedly turned to the dark side and oh glob this is worse than I remembered. John goes from fairly useless and mediocre to being a whiny little bitch.
More hamfisted overreaction pretending to be reasonable interaction between John and the Anthroponian Matmon (the fancy name for the dwarf people there). But anyway, important character Mab the Seer appears on a giant talking eagle, Aguila, carrying some “wine of free pardon” that is Magic Healing Happy Juice/minor deus ex machina.
Anyway, the Sword Bearer is some Prophecied One who will slay the Prince of Goblins on the day that the Regents come. Which is also the time when Mab will die. The Matmon are on a journey to the Island of Geburah in Lake Nachash, where the Regents will appear in the Tower of Geburah.
Mab takes charge of John, and John continues to be a useless little bitch. To be able to draw his sword from the scabbard and fulfill the prophecy, John has to drink the wine of free pardon. He tasted it once and found it bitter and refuses to try it again, mostly out of shame and defiance. SYMBOLISM, MOTHERFUCKERS. But out of all the obvious symbolism I’ve seen in Christian fiction, this isn’t too bad because at least White doesn’t narratorsplain it. The characters’ reactions are enough for him and for the audience. Hallelujah for small mercies.
But at least John is pretty aware of his uselessness and is ashamed of it. Somehow his petulance is just fine with him, and he still remains punchable. Oso the giant talking bear hatches a plan to team up with Aguila and snuff out the Goblin Prince early, who turns out to be his creepy neighbor, Nicholas Slapfoot. (And I should add that though there are plenty of talking animals, it’s pretty arbitrary which ones those are.) John also discovers a mysterious blue stone pendant that turns him invisible and gives him the ability to see the true form of Slapfoot and also makes him feel more shamey-shames. But the sword is stuck in the scabbard, and Oso and Aguila are mortally wounded and killed outright, respectively. A mysterious woman named Chocma (she shows up later in the series) appears and shows John how to revive Oso with the berries that are used to make the wine of free pardon. Aguila, however, is a scattered carcass, but Mab shows up and pulls a Lazarus on her, bringing her back to life.
Mab emphasizes the difference between magic and what he does, miracles. It’s all mystic whatever, but magic is the selfish, self-willed type while miracles are from Changer-directed will. Other miraculous things I should mention are the Gaal trees, TARDIS-like oaks that provide homelike shelter that’s bigger on the inside and indistinguishably treelike on the outside, and proseo comai, or pross, stones, which are basically wishing/prayer stones, should the wish be according to the Changer’s will.
Mab takes John to investigate the enemy’s doings, discovering a white tower being built to oppose the Tower of Geburah. When they get back to the Matmon group, it’s all danger, danger, perilous journey, more danger, and blah blah for awhile. Then John is kidnapped to be delivered to the Lord Lunacy again the bad tower and uses the magic blue pendant to hide after some more hamfisted evil blah. Mab appears to him in a dream and gives him a flagon of the wine of free pardon. This time John drinks it and sees the Changer again, who bid him to draw the sword and bid the tower to sink into the swamp. Mab is there in a boat to rescue him, and he recognizes the blue pendant as the Mashal Stone. They go to the Island of Geburah.
Honestly, I think it was an unnecessary complication to throw in the other tower. The second Lord Lunacy meetup could have gone down pretty much the same without it, and we only knew about that tower’s existence just a few chapters ago. It was a disposable plot point.
But anyway, the Matmon and Mab and John stay on the island for two years, the Matmon building a castle around the Tower of Geburah. Nothing terribly important happens for awhile. Some of it is interesting, some of it is blah, but the next important thing to happen is the efel spawn. Efel spawn is basically like Flood from the Halo games, except eel-shaped and nocturnal. They’re heat-seeking, and the only way to kill them is with fire. The goblins are planning to use it to overwhelm and defeat the company on the island. And Mab is captured by the goblins before the efel spawn attack.
Blah, blah, blah, efel spawn are defeated, Mab is rescued but mortally wounded, the Regents arrive, and John faces Nick Slapfoot. After (spoilers) Nick is defeated, Mab is revealed to be John’s long-lost father, and the Changer returns them to this world in the 1920s. But John finds the Mashal Stone and a proseo stone in his pocket…
So it’s a mixed bag. Disjointed storytelling, rather pointless plot points, and the facepalmingly hammy portrayal of evil flattens the good parts into overall meh. There are some parts that are references to later parts in the series, but since some of those books were written before Sword Bearer, they pretty well stand on their own. If you want to read this for the heck of it, fine and dandy, but you’re not missing much by skipping this one.