Thursday, November 18, 2010

"The Devil's Sword" by Douglas E. Richards

***This is the 100th book I've read this year!

Summary: Kevin has recently discovered a passion for fencing, and he's excited to attend a large regional tournament at Nellis Air Force Base with his friends and fellow fencers, Ben and Rachel.  However, the three young competitors have no idea that arms dealers intent on stealing the ultimate weapon from the U.S. government are also at the tournament and have their eye on the fencers.  Kevin, Ben, and Rachel find themselves unwillingly drawn into a plan that could jeopardize the entire country's safety.

Musings: The Devil's Sword belongs to a genre that I never read--middle grade spy/adventure fiction. So I read this book for one simple reason.  It has fencing in it.

As I've mentioned before, I fenced in college and have since been fascinated by the sport.  However, while there's plenty of literature involving sword fighting, there are very few books which include fencing as a competitive sport.  When I heard about this book through my college fencing listserve, I was eager to try it out.  From the summary alone I knew the book would not be completely up my alley--fencers stop arms dealers!?--but I hoped the smart inclusion of the sport would win me over.

In the end, it's difficult for me to talk about the book fairly, as I want to acknowledge its weaknesses while also refraining from being overly harsh to a book that I would never normally have considered.

So, first, the bad in short.  The story is cliche and cheesy, the characters are stock, and there is a serious problem of "telling" instead of "showing."  There's no real style--just a story explained over the course of the book.

However, there are also goods.  The fencing is realistically portrayed.  One of the problems in writing books about fencing is that fencing, unlike more popular sports like basketball or football, has complicated rules, procedures, and uniforms that the lay person is not familiar with.  Richards does, then, go into long explanations about the sport (there's an especially large info dump in the first chapter), but it's accurate and interesting information.  The novel's especially good at showing how fencing can be appealing to people just like Kevin--slightly nerdy types who might want to be active but not be interested in traditional "jock" sports.

I was also worried that a book involving fencers facing arms dealers would inevitably lead to a dramatic sword fight between a 14-year-old and a villain.  As I've told the many people who have asked over the years, fencing in no way prepares you to actually fight anyone--sword or not.  Again, I was pleasantly surprised.  The book begins with this fabulous quote from Bruce Lee which sets the tone for the rest of the book:
"If someone comes at you with a sword, run if you can.  Kung Fu doesn't always work."
Although fencing provides the background for the book, and the kids' skills, developed in fencing, do play a part in their interactions with the arms dealers, there's no silly sword fight to the death.  In fact, as the book continues, fencing begins to play a less significant role in the novel.  I was actually rather disappointed when the novel moved away from the sport and simply into a traditional kids' spy story.

The Devil's Sword would be a good book for young people (middle to late elementary, probably) interested in spy books and/or fencing.  I also think it might be a good book for a child who might be interested in fencing, as it portrays the sport in a positive light.


  1. There is another novel you might enjoy about a teenage fencing Olympic hopeful. Children of the Lost Moon was released this year and received a great review from Midwest Book Review. It's a really fun read!

  2. Thanks a lot for the recommendation--I'll have to check it out!