Cool weapons – both magical and non-magical – are one of the most common staples of fantasy novels, but some are more unusual than others. Here are three that I find particularly memorable. *Warning! This article contains very minor spoilers!*
Alan Campbell’s Sea of Ghosts is one of the most striking fantasy novels I’ve read in years, with a wonderfully vivid and detailed setting. The story takes place in a world where humankind fought a war against the Unmer, a technologically (and magically) superior race.
Unable to combat the telepaths within the human ranks, the Unmer lost the war – and damned the world in the process. They distributed ichusae around the world’s oceans: small glass phials from which gushed limitless amount of toxic water. The oceans became poisonous and with the sea levels gradually rising, humanity faces an uncertain future.
The world Campbell has created is filled with wondrous Unmer artefacts; they were peerless inventors and sorcerers. Consequently they invented some highly impressive weapons, but it’s the void flies blunderbuss that really stands out.
An old blunderbuss occupied a prominent position. It was a singular piece, wrought from some strange white metal heavily embossed with Unmer runes and covered in fungi-like protrusions around the stock. The end of its barrels protruded through the jaw of a human skull. (p.166)
Void flies are terrifying, because they’re unstoppable. Literally. They turn the air around them to vacuum, so are capable of passing through any material and tearing it to shreds in the process. So naturally, for shits and giggles, the Unmer put them in a gun – and instantly created one of the most dangerous weapons in history. A weapon capable of ripping a dragon apart.
The tiny black insects came pouring out of the blunderbuss, steered by the runic spells etched into its barrel and unravelling into an ever-broadening spiral . . . In a heartbeat a cloud of them had engulfed the great brown serpent . . . and passed straight through it. Like ten thousand tiny blades, they ripped the dragon’s body to shreds. (p.173/4)
It’s explicitly stated that void flies can pass through anything, rupturing whatever matter is in their way. So theoretically if you had enough of them, you could single-handedly level an entire city. Which instantly makes the void flies blunderbuss one of the most insanely dangerous weapons in fantasy literature.
Magical swords are plentiful in epic fantasy, but the Possible Sword is a) technically not magical, and b) more memorable than most.
Miéville fans continue to debate which is the better novel between Perdido Street Station and The Scar, but for me it’s the latter – I feel the pirate city of Armada (thousands of captured ships lashed together to form a huge city of ships) is a more interesting setting than the sprawling urban mass of New Crobuzon, and – despite being leaner and a little more focused – the story still demonstrates the full range of Miéville’s startling imagination. There are some fantastic characters in this novel, from the mysterious Lovers to the vampiric Brucolac.
And then there’s Uther Doul and his Possible Sword.
Doul’s a fascinating character, a highly skilled warrior who possesses of a zen-like calmness as well as a touch of melancholy. He’s something of an intellectual, being an expert on the long-vanished Ghosthead Empire and a master of probability theory.
Probability theory is at the very heart of the Possible Sword.
There is a crack, like static, and a hum in the air. Bellis cannot see Doul’s right arm clearly. It seems to shimmer, to vibrate. It is unstuck in time. Doul moves (dancing) and turns to face his attackers . . . His sword blossoms. It is fecund, it is brimming, it sheds echoes. Doul has a thousand right arms, slicing in a thousand directions . . . A hundred blades block every attack his enemies make, and countless more retaliate brutally. (p. 579/580)
With the Possible Sword, Uther Doul mines probability. When he swings the blade, it delivers every single strike it is possible for the sword to make, with Doul being able to chose the one most deadly to his opponent. In other words, Doul can land a fatal strike every single time he swings the sword – regardless of the skill of his opponent. Via this method, Doul can – and does – take on multiple enemies at once and reduces them to a pile of mincemeat in seconds. It’s terrifying.
The men before him are carved and lacerated with a palimpsest of monstrous wounds. Doul strikes, and blood and screams welter up from around him in unbelievable gouts . . . He moves past the men who have boarded his ship, and sends up a mist of their blood, leaving them dying, limbs and body parts skittering over the deck. His armour is red. (p.580)
Uther Doul: not a man whose beer you want to spill.
The dying world of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence is full of all sorts of weird and wonderful things, from baans (energy swords that resemble lightsabers but pre-date them by six years) and portable energy-cannons, to air boats and mechanical vultures.
Plenty of intriguing characters inhabit this bleak world. One of the most memorable is Tomb the Dwarf – ‘as nasty a midget as ever hacked off the hands of a priest’. A brilliant inventor and engineer, he’s also dangerously unhinged. ‘I’ll visit Lord Waterbeck. I’ll cut his onions off. I’ll slice them thinly with my axe.’
Tomb’s lust for blood is hindered by the fact that he’s about three feet tall, so he makes up for this lack of physical presence by building himself an exoskeleton that turns him into a one-dwarf killing machine.
‘He had spread the immense skeleton out on the ground . . . Now, he lowered himself gently down until he lay supine on its cold bones . . . He lay there for a moment, strapped to the thing like a man crucified on a tree of insane design.’
Think Tyrion Lannister wearing Ripley’s exosuit from Aliens, and you’re halfway there. If this sounds faintly comical, just remember that Tomb is unhinged.
Tomb bent his legs, and came slowly to his feet. He was eleven feet tall. “Where’s my chopper?” he said. And, having found that weapon, he broke into a grotesque, capering dance, swinging it round his head in ecstatic figures of eight . . . “I’ll shorten them,” he screamed, the wind whistling through his mechanical limbs . . . And he stormed off, a gigantic paradox suspended on the thin line between comedy and horror. (p. 84)
The results are . . . predictable.
Tomb the Dwarf towered above the northmen in his exoskeleton, a deadly, glittering, giant insect, kicking in faces with bloodshot metal feet, striking terror and skulls with his horrible axe. (p. 90)
As far as fantasy weapons go, a psychotic dwarf charging about in an eleven-foot tall exoskeleton, waving an axe about with extreme prejudice, is one of the most memorable you’re likely to see.