Monday, May 18, 2015

[Book Review] Swordfighting: for Writers, Game Designers, and Martial Artists

Guy Windsor's latest book finally arrived. Because I supported his Longsword book campaign on Indiegogo, I got a bonus hardcover copy of Swordfighting as well (you can find my short review of the longsword book here).

This book is Guy Windsor's swordfighting manifesto - a combination of edited and republished blog posts and articles, as well as original material new just for the book, all of which paints a picture of what it means to be a swordfighting martial artist. It's far less of a guidebook for the audience listed on the cover (writers, game designers, and martial artists) and far more of a view inside Guy's head. In Swordfighting, Guy has put together an in-depth look at what's driven him to be a swordfighter (there's talk of mystical mountaintop revelations), the division between swordplay-as-sport and swordplay-as-martial-art (how much do you deal with the reality of taking another human being's life?), and all of the pesky details that bother swordfighters when it comes to martial arts in fiction (both on the page and on the screen).

A More Detailed Look

Let's go through the book section by section, and see what comes up. The book itself is divided into seven chapters, preceded by a forward and an introduction, and followed by an impressive set of acknowledgements, further reading, and bibliography. The bibliography alone is almost worth the price of admission - it is a truly impressive reading list, with a number of books picked out as being especially worth your time.

Each of the chapters consists of a number of discrete blog posts and articles. Each of these is prefaced by a mini-introduction that lets us know when & where it was originally published, what its reception was, and whether it had been changed significantly since its initial publication.

1. What is Swordsmanship?

This is one of the beefier sections of the book (along with chapters two and seven, all three of which run a full fifty pages). This is a general overview of how Guy got into historical European martial arts, a survey of the major sources available for folks who want to learn how to do it, and an in-depth analysis of the level of detail you need to be willing to go into to qualify--in Guy's eyes--as a historical European martial artist.

2. Lessons from the Art

What are the benefits of studying martial arts? In this section we see how studying martial arts can develop all kinds of "real world" skills beyond what is useful in the sala/dojo, from facing fear head-on, coming to understand personal responsibility, to picking yourself up after failure and moving forward anyway. Herein lies much on character development, and on how there is really no replacement for hard, focussed work.

3. On Martial Arts

Here Guy looks at what differentiates different martial arts: It is important to understand the context your art is designed for. A combat sport designed to work in the ring has different parameters than the killing arts of a commando, and those skills don't necessarily transfer from one context to the other. Also a bit of mythbusting around strength and speed, and what constitutes "strong" or "fast" enough.

4. Swords

I've trained with Guy a number of times, both shorter workshops and longer weekend seminars, with blunt swords as well as sharps. Every time I talk to someone about Guy's use of sharp swords they get a particular "freaked out" look. In this chapter, Guy explains why a true martial artist--that is, someone training for the possibility of killing someone else--needs a healthy respect for the deadliness of the weapon, and there is really no substitute for training with sharp swords.

5. Writing Swordfights

This is the beefy heart of the book, in a lot of regards. Composed entirely of newly written material, Guy goes into great detail about what fight scene considerations: Is it an ambush, a duel, or merely a fencing lesson? What kind of sword do you have? How do you carry it? What do swords actually do to the human body? It's all really good stuff, most of which tends to be overlooked by most authors (in my experience). As a bonus, this section ends with historical accounts of a pair of fairly brutal duels.

6. Gaming

One of the shorter chapters, this one recounts the story of Guy's involvement with the development of two projects: Audatia, a relatively successful swordfighting card game, and Clang!, a flash-in-the-pan video game. It's interesting to see the differences between the two, and it really highlights the extreme difficulty of trying to get games of any kind to be accurate-to-life.

7. Training

What does it take to become a swordfighting master? This section is fairly broad in scope, detailing both how to incorporate martial arts training as a part of one's life (journey vs destination-type stuff), as well as going into the specifics of how to make the jump from centuries-old book to practical modern application. This is another very useful chapter, particularly for folks who are trying to put together a study group but don't know what they should focus on.

The final article in this section, "Bullshit," should be required reading for every martial artist.

Some Issues

Because this book is a collection of essays, blog posts, and articles there is a certain lack of coherence to the work as a whole. Reading the book in one giant go, as I did, feels a bit like binge-watching a 90s sitcom: there are certain things that are pointed out as novel in a few places that we've already been shown more than once (the bit from Viggiani about training with sharp swords is quoted in full more than once). That aside, the perk of this format is that individual bits and pieces are far more complete on an individual level. If I just want to read about structure, for example, I just need to look at the "I am weak" section, and it'll have all the relevant bits self-contained.

The only real complaint that I have--and it's rather nitpicky--is the formatting of article breaks. Using the book's sword-and-heart logo between article intros and the articles themselves makes the intro seem like part of the previous article. More than once I found myself confused by an abrupt change of topic, only to realize that I'd moved on to the next essay without realizing it.


In a lot of ways this book is far less useful than Guy's other books: It's not a how-to manual for writing, or a reference for the study of a particular system or style of swordplay. In fact, the vast bulk of the book is already available for free on his blog.

In many more ways, however, I'd say this book is probably more useful than the how-to manuals and reference books, in no small part because this book isn't tied to a particular interpretation of a particular book's instruction. Instead, Guy has provided us with a look inside the world of a dedicated life-long martial artist: what makes him tick, how he got to be where he is (warts and all, in more than a few cases), and how to develop your martial practice as part of becoming a more complete human being.

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