I love sword fighting. Seriously — doesn’t matter if it’s steel, lightsabers, or plasteel. If it’s a clash of sword shaped weapons, I’m there.
Like a lot of kids, I grew up swinging sticks and plastic lightsabers. But, unlike many, I kept at it and studied the sword for years. I fenced varsity in college, I helped start a fencing school a decade later, and for the last fifteen years I’ve dabbled when the opportunity arose. Recently, I got my kids started along the warrior’s path with a little Jedi training. While I’m not an Olympian, I considered myself qualified to judge a literary sword fight.
And so, my with my credentials in place, I’m giving you my top five sword fights in recent fiction — feel free to share your favorites in the comments below.
5. Caine vs Berne, Heroes Die
Matthew Stover’s Caine is a magnificent character, and throughout the Acts of Caine series there have been more fights, brawls, take downs, and acts of wanton violence than any ten normal adventure books. Incredibly, it never seem gratuitous — it’s just how that world is, and Stover presents it head on, eyes open, and without a flinch in sight.
Caine isn’t really a sword kinda guy, more of a weapon of opportunity type of fighter, but his nemesis Berne has a penchant for swords. Add in the magical blade of Kosall, enchanted to cut through anything, and you’ve got a real battle on your hands.
What unfolds on the grounds of Ma’el Koth’s temple at the story’s climax when Caine’s knives face Berne’s sword, is as exceptional a portrayal of combat as any you’ll come across. And that’s earned it a spot in the top five.
4. St Vier vs Applethorpe, Swordspoint
Ellen Kushner is an exceptional storyteller, and one of her most powerful creations is the swordsman Richard St Vier. The ultimate swordsman of his generation, St. Vier is steel eyed killer for hire who gets wrapped up in the games of the nobility.
As the nobles maneuver for power, St Vier is content to be what he is. He takes no sides, plays no favorites.
When hired to kill an errant young noble, he finds him away from the manicured lawns and parties on The Hill, finding him instead in a small fencing salon in Riverside, where he’s learning the art of defense from the swordmaster of the previous generation. Knowing St Vier would easily kill his pupil, the elder swordsman acts as his champion.
The result is one of the most compelling swordfights in fantasy.
3. Durendal vs Herat, The Gilded Chain
Dave Duncan’s King’s Blade series is exactly as it sounds: Swordsman doing brave deeds for the king. Trained to be the best fighters in the world, then enchanted to be a little faster, a little stronger to better serve their king, the Blades of Ironhall are pretty awesome — and Durendal, sent on foreign assignment to bring back a lost brother, proves his metal in the sands of the fighting pits.
When Durendal is challenged by the immortal swordsman Herat, a man who makes a sport of killing every day in the arena the battle that ensues as Durenadal looks to avenge his fallen comrade is nothing short of epic.
Every parry a daring escape, every thrust a brush with death, and every word a poet’s prose. Number 3 on my list.
2. Master vs Lady, The Fencing Master
Arturo Perez-Reverte is known for his Mediterranean pirate epic, Captain Alatriste, but his modest, historical passion play about an aging sword master is nothing short of perfection.
When the fencing master takes on a young, female student he sees it as the inevitable changing of the times, where the arte of defense is now reduced to a common sport. Soon, though, he comes to realize he has instead taken on the training of a deadly assassin, who’s target is one of his closest friends.
The final act, where the master faces his pupil, is one of the most elegant and best informed fencing scenes I’ve ever read.
1. Lancelot vs Curdagh, The Darkest Road
Guy Gavriel Kay is a man who knows his way around a sword fight. A huge runner up to this list is the battle between Rodrigo and in Lions of Al Rassan, but when it really came down to it, there is little that beats the epic showdown between Lancelot and the demon Curdagh in Lissen’s wood over a boy’s soul.
In The Darkest Road, Lancelot fights the battle he was born for, when he faces a shapeshifting elder demon in hand to hand combat — his sword, vs the demon’s hammer (and sword hands, knife feet, stone body, and… aw forget it!). This whole showdown absolutely reeked of epic awesomeness. I was practically expecting Lancelot to say “I’m your huckleberry” when he stepped forward to act at the boy’s champion.
Unlike Reverte and Duncan, Kay focuses less on the technical details of the fight to buckle down on the intensity. His always elegant prose provides such an impact to the fight, nailing the stakes of the struggle directly into the reader’s heart.
Lancelot may have damned Camelot, but he was not going to fail twice. And that purity of purpose combined with the emotional intensity and that magnificent prose is what elevates this fight to my Number 1.
Are you a fantasy or adventure reader? What is the best sword fight scene you’ve ever read?