They swagger, they fight, they laugh in the face of danger. Science-fiction books have given us some of the greatest swashbuckling heroes, cutting a swathe through space and countless alternate timelines. Here are some of our favorite book heroes.
When we asked our friends to name their favorite swashbuckling heroes from SF books, first we had to figure out what exactly we meant by "swashbuckling." Here's what we came up with: A swashbuckling hero doesn't necessarily need to pack a sword — although it certainly doesn't hurt. A certain dapperness comes with the territory, or at the very least a unique sense of style. Words starting with "D" came up a lot, including dashing, debonair, defiant, dapper and daring.
What we found was that fantasy is full of swashbucklers — it's one of the hallmarks of the genre — but there are some amazing swashbucklers in science fiction too. (And we threw it open to include "urban fantasy," or anything which takes place in something akin to the modern world or the future.)
Here are our favorite swashbuckling heroes from science fiction books:
He's got the sword and the steely gaze, not to mention the old-school charm, and he's also got the mad adventures — the seemingly immortal Virginian gets zapped to Mars upon his "death" and wins the hand of the princess, Deja Thoris. He leads a company of Tharks to defeat the city-state of Zodanga, and then sacrifices his own life to save the atmosphere on Mars. (But then just winds up on Earth again.)
Here are some great Princess Of Mars covers and images, including some great art by Frank Frazetta:
Jack Half-A-Prayer (Perdido Street Station and Iron Council by China Mieville):
Even amongst all the other memorable and weird characters from Mieville's Bas-Lag universe, Jack Half-A-Prayer stands out, with his weird sense of style. One of the Remade, he's got a giant praying mantis arm, but instead of becoming downtrodden and full of self-loathing, he becomes a freedom fighter and a legend, until it finally catches up with him. Here's a great illustration of him that artist Nicholas William Kole created. (More of Kole's great art here.)
"Slippery" Jim DiGriz (The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison):
The first person that came to mind when we thought of this category — a grifter and adventurer who's always twenty jumps ahead of everybody else. Even though the love of a good woman softens him slightly, he never stops being a scoundrel. Still, if he ever runs for president on your planet, you'd be crazy not to vote for him.
Frank Rozvar (The Skies Discrowned/Forsake The Sky by Tim Powers):
As Earth's empire crumbles in the distant future, Frank Rozvar sees his father murdered, and is forced to flee to Munson Underground, the city under the planet's surface. He plots revenge — and it's a good thing he's an expert fencer as well as a stylish bastard. Although, as my friend Bill notes, Powers' early heroes tend to be more "grim and gritty" than "dashing and dapper."
The Librarians (The Greatwinter Trilogy by Sean McMullen):
Many buckles are swashed by these dragon librarians in a post-apocalyptic 40th century setting. They're forever fighting ritual duels, including battles (with very strict rules) in airships. These books are packed with derring-do and Errrol Flynn-esque feats of bravery and cunning.
This swordmaster in the service of House Atreides is a ladies man and an expert student of the Swordmasters Of Ginaz. The Harkonnens kill his parents and raise him to be hunted for sport — but he gets away. One of Duke Leto's right-hand men, he trains Paul in the arts of war. And when he gives his life to defend Paul and Jessica, he takes down no less than 17 Sardaukar soldiers.
Cugel The Clever (The Dying Earth books by Jack Vance):
A thief and scoundrel, Cugel displays tons of rambunctiousness and skullduggery. But he's also a dab hand with a sword, and he's very dapper with his triple-tiered hat, adorned with a "foppish bedazzlement." His roguish ways and indefatigible charm have won him his own Facebook group.
Speaker-To-Animals (Ringworld by Larry Niven):
One of the coolest of Niven's Kzinti, Speaker-To-Animals is slightly less likely to kill you on sight than other members of his race, but he's still a superb fighter and a total badass. He's too honorable to kill Louis Gridley Wu for meat, even when he's starving. Typical line: "I have a variable sword. I urge calm." Bad. Ass. (Art by A.C. Farley.)
Anthony Villiers (Star Well by Alexei Panshin):
A former viscount, Villiers gets fobbed off by his family and travels around the universe in the company of a giant toad named Torve, having crazy adventures. He's always getting himself caught up in duels and assassination plots, as he moves through the highest levels of galactic society without ever quite having enough money on hand. He's foppish, following the motto "Live as you dress" and doing both of those things well.
Drake Maijstral (Crown Jewels, House of Shards, &Rock of Ages by Walter Jon Williams):
Maijstral is an Allowed Burglar in a distant future when the human race has been conquered by aliens called the Khosali, who have subjected us to their regime of High Custom. Under this complicated set of rules, you can steal — as long as you hang on to the merchandise for 24 hours without getting caught. (One of the Khosali emperors was a kleptomaniac who wanted to legalize theft, hence the odd compromise.) Since all of Maijstral's exploits are recorded and broadcast, he becomes a huge celebrity with a great sense of verve and style.
Hiro Protagonist (Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson):
Protagonist's business card says it all: "Last of the freelance hackers and Greatest swordfighter in the world." He learns of the existence of a new drug called Snow Crash, that's both a computer virus and a reality-altering substance. He's the undisputed champion of in-Metaverse sword-fighting, because he helped write the code which makes swordfighting possible.
E.C. Gordon, aka Scar, aka Oscar (Glory Road by Robert Heinlein):
This war veteran answers an ad that asks, "Are You A Coward," placed by a beautiful woman. Then he goes on a quest and crosses swords with the Never-Born aka the Eater Of Souls, the guardian of the Egg of the Phoenix in Mile High Tower. (For some reason, the Eater Of Souls appears as a 17th century swordsman.)
Beka Rosslin-Metadi (The Price Of The Stars by Debra Doyle and James D. McDonald):
Okay, just look at the jacket, and the red eyepatch. And she's an amazing space pilot, freebooter and spacer by trade — who's turned her back on her famous military family. Until her mom is assassinated, and her father gives her the best spaceship around, the Warhammer, to look for the assassins. She leaves "a trail of kidnappings and corpses across four star systems," and blows the roof off the strongest private fortress in the galaxy. Rock on.
Pham Nuwen (A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge):
Pham grows up in a post-apocalyptic Canberra that's similar to the Middle Ages, complete with swords, daggers and poison. Then the Qeng Ho arrive and he leaves with them. He becomes a legendary commander and Programmer-At-Arms. At one point, Pham Nuwen is held prisoner by some idiots, and he realizes that the computers on the ship had used smart dust long ago — which means he can hack into the computers by blinking, without anyone noticing.
Ed Chianese (Light by M. John Harrison)
Thrill-seeker, adventurer and virtual-reality addict, Ed Chianese "owes money to everyone in the universe." Writes Harrison, "From an early age, Ed Chianese had been some kind of drifter and sensationist. He couldn't remember what planet he came from. 'Maybe it was even this one!' He laughed." With his peroxide hair and cheap tattoos, he's dapper after a fashion.
Giraut Leones (A Million Open Doors by John Barnes):
Giraut lives in Nou Occitan, which is sort of like medieval Europe, with the dueling, the chivraly and the artistic dabbling. But then he goes to live in another one of the thousand human cultures in the far future — the sterile Caledony, which is like a McCarthy-ite, Christian repressive world. So he becomes the rebellious, sword-fighting hero of this crazy world.
Jay Kalam and his cohorts (Legion Of Space Series by Jack Williamson):
Kalam is commander of the Legion, and just in case you miss the Three Musketeers-i-ness of his group of stalwart fighters against the renegade Purple and the evil Medusae, one of his friends is named Samdu (an anagram of "Dumas.")
Owen Deathstalker (Deathstalker by Simon Green):
Heir to a warrior name, Owen Deathstalker lives a quiet life as a historian, until the Empress names him an outlaw, and he's forced to flee, and help organize the rebellion against the Empress Lionstone.
Additional reporting by Mary Ratliff. Thanks to Bill Brickman, Jed Hartman, Chris Hsiang, Andrew Liptak, Dennis Woo, Wayne Nix, Angela Cooper, Zack Stentz, Tim Jones, Jonathan Korman, Tom Marcinko, Espana Sheriff, Richard Kadrey, Chris Hall, Allan Ebalo, David J. Schwartz, @RainOnRoof, Jenn Reese, John Klima, another Tim Jones, Cheryl Morgan and anyone else I missed for the suggestions!