Playing with Knives: The Best Duels in Fiction

One thing people really do seem to like about the Shadows of the Apt series and Guns of the Dawn  (now out in paperback!) is a decent fight scene. It was, I think, the very first thing I heard openly said about my writing – way back at a convention years ago, in a panel on the topic – and given the sheer amount of fighting there is, in fantasy in general and in my writing in particular, it still stands as pretty high praise. I certainly try, and in the search for the well-balanced fight I’ve learned stage-fighting, historical swordsmanship and done more LARPing than I care to think of.

A good fight in a fantasy novel should be more than just sword-porn. A fight is a narrative device (war is the continuation of storytelling by other means), and also a tool for characterisation. You can learn a lot about someone by sitting behind their eyes when they’re in mortal peril, after all. In Empire in Black and Gold, when Tynisa and Tisamon finally throw down, that fight picks up their relationship when neither of them have any more words. In Guns of the Dawn Emily’s first battle is what forges her as a character – becoming a leader because there’s nobody else there reveals that it’s something she can do, and sets her course for the remainder of the war.

Writing fight scenes is a real skill. There’s the balance of what the author needs to know, against what the reader needs to be shown. Once you know something about fights it’s always a temptation to show too much, like the dull person in the pub who wants everyone to know about the minutiae of their hobby. There’s the shape of the wider conflict against the restricted experience of the individual (at a panel at Fantasycon this year I called to mind the Black Knight fight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or the similar device in Gilliam’s Jabberwockya whole fight seen through just that little slit). Then there are technical details – weapons, armour, reach, quarters for attack and defence, all subordinate to the telling of a story but useful tools nonetheless (Tynisa’s rapier having reach over the shortswords common amongst the kinden has its little part to play in several of her fights, for example).

Some of my favourite fight scenes, and the reason for them, are below:

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1. A CLASH OF GIANTS

Dassem Ultor vs Anomander Rake from Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson (The Malazan Book of the Fallen: Book 8)

Erikson’s Malazan series is perhaps the epickest of epics (although GRRM is catching up) – a cast of thousands from lowly mortals to demigods, and eventually some of those great powers of the Malazan world are going to end up crossing swords. This is storytelling by build-up – both characters (and Rake especially) have been striding through the books amply demonstrating how ass-kickingly tough they are, and now only one of them is going to walk away. The fight itself is neither long nor detailed but its power is in the sheer significance and history the antagonists are bringing to it.

 

2. UNEXPECTED JUSTICE

The Ronin Benkei vs Garth de Montfaucon from The Folk of the Air by Peter S. Beagle

This is a little known jewel from the author of The Last Unicorn. It contains a number of fights, tournaments and one large scale battle, with the unusual rider that they are all at least nominally for play. The book centres about a Larp/Re-enactment society where some real magic has got into the mix, and so things get far more dangerous than they’re supposed to be, but this one fight from near the end of the novel has always stuck in my mind. Beagle’s use of language is, as always, elegant and beautiful, but the emotional impact of this fight is the sheer satisfaction it brings the reader, seeing the unworthy brought low in the very moment of their triumph. In this case it isn’t even part of the main plot of the novel, which at that point is veering off towards its own last act denouement, but no less satisfying for all that.


3. A MASTERY OF THE ART FORM

Mary Gentle’s fight scenes from Ash and her White Crow series.

If forced to pick a particular fight to demonstrate what I mean, the training match between Valentine and Frankie at the start of Left To His Own Devices is a splendid demonstration, Gentle knows swords (and I have had the pleasure of watching her fight) and has the authorial skill to bring that knowledge to the page. Her battle scenes in Ash are likewise top notch (and there are so many reasons to read that book. It really is one of the most remarkable fantasy(/SF?) works every written). K.J. Parker is another author who demonstrates a similar ease with swordplay, especially fencing, perhaps reaching his greatest heights in Sharps.

 

4. THE INTRUSION OF THE FANTASTICAL

 Kaeska vs Ryshad from The Swordsman’s Oath by Juliet E McKenna (Tales of Einarin: Book 2)

Fantasy is more than swordplay, of course. McKenna is another author who knows her fighting and brings it eloquently to life in writing, but she is also one of the best writers of practical magic in the business. In this fight, and many other places throughout her series, she merges the two, giving us a fight where the hero must overcome the influence of magic at the same time as his opponent’s skill. Ryshad is also in a foreign culture, surrounded by a complex set of customs he does not wholly understand, so that even the wrong kind of victory could get him killed, leading to an whole additional layer of tension.

 

5. BLOODY CHANCE AND BAD LUCK

 Bremer dan Gorst vs Whirran of Bligh from The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie.

This is almost full circle, because this is another clash of giants. Throughout The Heroes, dan Gorst and Whirran are both established as lethal combatants in different ways. Dan Gorst is a modern duellist and merciless bastard. Whirran is a folk hero right out of the sagas, with a possibly-magical sword to boot. They meet not in formal duel but in the midst of a huge, chaotic battlefield, and Abercrombie is not one to let traditional heroic form overcome the brutal realities of the situation. This is one of Abercrombie’s specialities, fights and characters so real you can taste the grit between your teeth, and twice as unlucky. His books are filled with bloody, nasty fights that never descend into mere bloodshed-fetishism.