Six Sacred Swords
by Andrew Rowe
I think the biggest surprise to me in this book was that I had unwittingly read other books about the main character. So, the main character, Keras, is a significant side character in Rowe’s Arcane Ascension series — something I already knew. This book, though, starts its own series by using the latest events in Arcane Ascension as an excuse for Keras to tell his story as a flashback in the first person. It’s a neat plot mechanic that I found cleverly implemented.
The surprise for me came in the interlude, where Keras was recounting an event even further back in his past than Six Sacred Swords, mostly his background. It was then I realized that Keras was a main character in Rowe’s other Broken Mirror series. I’ll admit that for a few minutes (prior to a quick Google search), I actually wondered if Rowe was ripping off someone else’s story. I’d gotten my authors confused and didn’t realize Rowe had actually written Broken Mirrors. Eh, fun times. I will say that I like it when an author connects their works together like this. It makes the world feel more fleshed out and real. I was delighted to find a character woven into now three separate series.
Six Sacred Swords seemed to be an attempt at a different kind of writing than Rowe’s other works. So I read Broken Mirrors long enough ago that I can’t really comment on his style then (I have no intention to reread the books either). Arcane Ascension, however, gears much more toward a detailed power progression of the magic system, inviting you to join Corin as he struggles to overcome inherent limitations. Much of the joy in those books involves the delightfully unusual ways in which he overcomes his challenges. In a lot of ways, it’s power-progression done right, and it’s one of my favorite series.
Power progression (aka, Path to Power) series can be tricky to write, and I think not for the reason one might suspect. Yes, the writer generally has to keep track of a large number of variables and account for all of them in each scene. It can take a lot of work to account for everything, but rewarding as well. More than once, I’ve been delighted when a character has utilized some obscure use of a technique I’d forgotten they ever learned.
No, power progression series are tricky precisely because readers like them. It’s pretty much why litRPG is a thing, with detailed character sheets and all. The tricky part for the writer comes in resisting the temptation to substitute character progression with power progression. They’re not the same. Too often, I’ve seen great power progression, with innovative magic and skill trees, etc., but on a character that never changes. Yes, they get powerful, but that’s pretty much it. A lot of times the reader may not even notice, so caught up in the progression with an ache to see the next level, they don’t really see the character at all. The story is little more than accouterment to the ever-progressing character sheet, and that’s alright for many, I suppose.
I hate it. Personally, while I like power progression, that like sours into disappointment whenever it overrides good writing, good characters, and a meaningful plot.
Six Sacred Swords is a power progression series, but only kind of. While it does have progression elements, I felt they were actually quite minimal. Yes, he gains a new sword, but in truth, the sword felt less like power progression and more like the addition of a new, chatty character to the story… because it was. Keras does improve by the end, but really, it’s barely a progression of power for him, especially since he was already over powered to begin with.
So instead of a path to power, I felt like the book veered more into the witty, fun adventuring I see in standard sword and magic novels. This is not a bad thing. For instance, I’ve long enjoyed Lindsay Buroker’s various adventure series. They’re fun and exciting, providing a quick read with memorable characters. Six Sacred Swords felt a lot like that to me.
At multiple points throughout the book, I found myself chuckling at some well-written humor or wrapped into the adventure aspects of the novel. And to be clear, Rowe’s other books have these elements as well. I simply felt they were more condensed in Six Sacred Swords. It’s not a bad thing, and its a good part of the reason I feel it’s barely a power progression book (maybe even series, once he writes them).
Strip away the power progression and what do you have? You have humor and adventure… and well, that’s kind of it. And here is where I think removing the progression elements highlighted some of the flaws of Rowe’s writing. Keras felt a bit flat to me, especially if you set aside his humor (which I did enjoy). Rei was marginally better as she dealt with some father issues, but even those felt more like plot drivers than real issues.
What makes this difficult for me is that Rowe tried to put that stuff in. Keras has a past, and it has helped define who he is today. He’s reticent to use his power because he almost killed his adoptive parents with it, and then he did cut off his friend’s arm. That’s a lot of tragedy to deal with. The problem I had was his reticence felt to me more like plot mechanics than real, deep issues Keras struggles with. In truth, Keras has enormous power, and it is his unwillingness to embrace that power which leaves him struggling to overcome obstacles. That might make sense if he weren’t so flippant all the time.
Humor can be a salve, a coping mechanism. When you have such terrible power combined with a tragic past from its use, then I would expect to see the hero to struggle, using coping mechanisms to manage. But Keras’ humor didn’t feel like that to me. It felt more like his personality in general than it did something he used to cope with the guilt of a past. His desire to not kill felt similar, more like an honor code than something seared into him from past mistakes. It feels more like something he chooses to do than something he’s driven to do, and this creates a disconnect with his past because I could very much see why he’d be driven by his past mistakes.
I think Rowe tries to invite us to sympathize with Keras’ tragic past. But when Keras himself doesn’t seem to feel it, it makes it hard for me as a reader to as well. When Keras then makes choices, hard choices that make his life difficult based on that past, I as a reader start feeling it’s all a little too contrived. I’m not feeling Keras feel the tragedy, but Keras is making decisions like he does, laughing and joking the whole while.
As a reader, I need to see Keras really struggle with his past, not just make rational decisions. It doesn’t take much. Maybe a scene where Keras breaks down for real after using his power. So suddenly, I’m sucked into his tragedy because now I see and feel his pain. Or maybe he makes a bad decision because of his past that actually has a bad outcome (someone good actually dies). But he didn’t, not really, and so neither did I.
So for me, it was a fun read with lots of laughs and some decent adventure, but with characters that felt flat and who’s only real struggle was to make it to the next adventure in time for us to forget they’re not really progressing as characters themselves.
But this is just the first of what I’m sure are many books in this series. Rowe has a lot of room here to flesh out and deepen his characters. I hope he does because, on the whole, I’ve gotten to enjoy this world he created and look forward to reading the next in the series.
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Six Sacred Swords