Book Review: Six Sacred Swords, by Andrew Rowe

I don’t know when I realized that self-published e-books have become the modern equivalent of the dollar paperback bin, but that epiphany made me a lot more open to self-publishing. After all, I love the dollar paperback bin. It also helps that I’ve gotten into the habit of reading e-books on a regular basis. And so, when I stumbled across Andrew Rowe’s Six Sacred Swords being given away for free, I figured I’d check it out.

six swords

And, uh. They can’t all be winners.

Six Sacred Swords is the first in Rowe’s “Weapons and Wielders” series, which in turn is connected to a bunch of other books he’s written. As I’ve gathered, Rowe mainly writes “progression fantasy,” which is a sub-subgenre that focuses on, well, characters who get progressively stronger (See also: Unsouled). Though thankfully Rowe never delves into actual XP totals and level caps, as that would make his books “LitRPG,” which is a different sub-subgenre. It also happens to be a subgenre I personally find to be kind of … trite, at best, and openly problematic at worst. But that’s a post for a different time.

Anyway! Six Sacred Swords is ostensibly supposed to be a jumping-on point for Rowe’s greater body of work. And, uh … it honestly kind of fails at that.

Right off the bat, Six Sacred Swords has some issues. I mean, to begin with, there’s a little author’s note at the beginning of the book where Rowe explains some of the text conventions he’s going to use regarding telepathic dialogue. (It’s, uh, that kind of book). Which … like, I get where he’s coming from, but it honestly comes off as a bit amateurish and unconfident? In comparison, Elizabeth Bear’s Machine uses similar text tricks with italics and brackets and such to delineate different kinds of alien speech, but she just throws it out there, letting the reader figure it out for themselves. Which, uh– comparing Rowe to Bear may be a bit unfair, but that’s gonna be something of a recurring theme in this review.

Anyway, the book centers on a dude named Keras, a mysterious swordsman with a cursed sword, as he … does … stuff? For some reason? The first few chapters in particular come off as a bit clumsy. Keras’ mission and motivations are laid out in blandly generic terms– he’s been randomly teleported to a different continent by “a sorcerer” so he can recruit “a goddess” to … fight some dark lord guy? I think? Rowe might have given some more specific names at some point I missed– but at the same time the little details became fairly irrelevant. Especially early in the book, stuff just kind of … happens, and I found myself not really caring about it. Given the video-gamey nature of the book (Rowe lists Zelda and Final Fantasy among his inspirations), it almost feels like when you’re blundering around in an open-world RPG and stumble across a random sidequest? Which, while it can be an entertaining surprise in a video game, doesn’t work well for a novel.

Keras has a whole mess of backstory (some of which we get in some clunky expository flashback chapters), which is … fine, I guess? It’s just that one of the first major obstacles Keras faces is an illusion of some of his friends and enemies from earlier books in the series. And that’s not even the only flashback-illusion we get in the book, either. The whole thing had me wondering “wait, why should we care about these randos again?” If I’d read the earlier books in the series, I might be more enthusiastic about these cameos, but as it is, it’s kind of like jumping into an Avengers movie without having done the “homework” of reading the comics and watching earlier movies. (“Why does the raccoon have a laser gun again? Who is the prune face man with the bling-glove? How come Sherlock Holmes is a wizard?”)

Eventually, Keras blunders around until he fights (and then makes friends with) a shapeshifting dragon-lady, and then through some mild schenanigans, he comes into possession of the only titular sacred sword in the book. Said sacred sword is also sentient, and also kind of flirty– though thankfully Rowe never gets into the Mike Truk kind of sexytime self-publishing.

The problem is, Rowe spends a bit of time poking fun at video game tropes. For example, Dawn, the sword, is a bit miffed that Keras has yanked her out of her magic rock without collecting the requisite magic amulets first. It’s an amusing bit of comedy (if not exactly Pratchett, to make another wildly unfair comparison) … except that after getting the sword, Keras decides to go dungeon-crawling to get the magic amulets he cheated his way out of needing before, for … reasons? It’s all very arbitrary and aimless– which, well, you’d think a mysterious swordsman on a quest to recruit gods to fight a big dark lord guy would have a little more focus, but hey. Sidequests, man.

What’s most frustrating (apart from the fact that a book called Six Sacred Swords only has one sacred sword in it), is the fact that there are the bones of a fun adventure novel in here. In particular, Rowe has a lot of fun writing the characters. They’re a little tropey– but at the same time, a semi-cursed swordsman, a flirty sentient sword, and a dragoness with a hoard of cheap romance novels all make for a fairly entertaining cast. It’s just that while there’s plenty of action in the book, there really isn’t much in the way of plot. It’s just ‘go here, fight a monster, do a dungeon, have another boss fight, repeat.’ If Keras and co. had more stuff to actually do and/or higher stakes to make the reader care about what happened, Six Sacred Swords would be a much stronger book.

So yeah. Six Sacred Swords was … okay. Like, it’s got its fun bits, and it’s not offensive or anything. But at the same time the book just didn’t hook me to the point where I’d find excuses to read more of it, or give me the burning desire to read the rest of the series. Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of confidence. Six Sacred Swords is littered with expository passages that slow the book’s pace to a crawl so Rowe can lay out the exact details of which characters use which weapons and/or flavors of magic. And it’s not even in a Brandon Sanderson-esque “here’s how these unique and strange powers interact, see details in Appendix C” sense, either. With every little detail laid out in such a straightforward matter, Six Sacred Swords lacks the sense of weirdness and wonder that can be found in great fantasy novels. And that, I dare say, was the biggest disappointment.

But hey, at least the book was free, right?

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