The Reluctant Swordsman – Dave Duncan

The_Reluctant_Swordsman_-_Dave_Duncan_cover
Seventh Sword #1

Wallie Smith has died. Much to the surprise of all concerned, however, he’s turned up in the body of Shunso, Seventh-level swordsman in a world of temples, slaves, and duels. Wallie tries to do good, but then a god steps in, and Wallie has to re-evaluate his choices.

I’m not generally a fan of sidewise type stories – where an ordinary guy suddenly finds himself in another time or dimension. There have been good ones – Narnia, “Sidewise in Time”, Barsoom, “A Connecticut Yankee”, Thomas Covenant, Amber – but generally I lack interest. I am, on the other hand, a fan of Dave Duncan, and The Seventh Sword is a series I haven’t previously read. Based on this first book, he succeeds with the concept – partially.

Duncan doesn’t waste a lot of time on the setup, and none at all on the preliminaries. Wallie Smith is dead, then he’s in Shonsu, then Shonsu is effectively out. Smith accepts his new status fairly readily, and that’s that. Fine by me; we all know pretty well how these things work, by now. To his credit, Duncan focuses much more on the moral and philosophical aspect of it. Smith avoids violence; Shonsu’s world accepts it. Smith abhors slavery; in Shonsu’s world, it’s a fact of life. Smith tries to follow his original ideals, and in his new world, that’s not always the right choice. Duncan returns to this idea throughout the book. Smith makes choices that trouble him, and he stays troubled, even as he begins to see things in part by local standards.

That makes slavery a difficult issue. Smith meets a sex slave, and makes an effort to do what he thinks is right. Sometimes. Early on, Smith has sex with his new slave, and I found his acceptance of the situation both uncomfortable, and not credible for his character. That discomfort continues, but it’s also true that Smith himself is uncomfortable. It’s not the one-off rationalization I feared, but a continuing examination of what to do with a slave in a world where slaves cannot be freed.

I wish that Duncan had made some different choices for his character, and it’s true that the author stays well within his accustomed light fantasy lane. But I give him credit for at least considering how to handle slavery and for having that worry be a continuing theme throughout the book. On the upside, “How do you know when your slave is happy?” is a multifaceted question. On the other hand, the key slaves are all women, and their role is largely sex and decoration oriented. I’m hopeful that will change in later books.

All in all, an interesting and surprisingly thoughtful swords-and-muscles fantasy, but one that presents some moral obstacles to enjoyment.

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