In celebration of the latest Tiger and Del book, a review and ranking of the rest of the series.
The Tiger and Del novels are one of my all-time favorite book series. I read the first one when I was a teenager, and eagerly awaited the release of each subsequent book in the original tetralogy. The other volumes have come as unexpected delights, each time with author Jennifer Roberson saying it’s probably the last.
With the release of the latest installment, Sword Bearer, I thought it would be fun to rank the previous stories and share my favorite moments in each.
In order from least-favorite to most-favorite.
Sword-Born (Book 5)
Roberson deserves credit for trying something different with this one. Tiger and Del, both now exiles, venture far from their homes to the island of Skandi. Skandi is a neat setting, its Mediterranean feel unlike either the North or the South.
The pacing is my main issue with the story. Though it starts strong with a pirate attack and shipwreck, much of the story is devoted to politics, family drama, and the “is he or isn’t he” question of Tiger’s heritage. It tweaked my sense of disbelief that Del basically picked a boat at random and just happened to deliver Tiger to his long-lost grandmother. I also wasn’t a big fan of Skandi’s weird magic system.
Favorite moment: Tiger going below the decks of a sinking ship—even though he can’t swim—to save the stud. I’ve always loved how Roberson makes Tiger’s horse into a character in his own right.
Sword-Bound (Book 7)
Sword-Bound wasn’t bad, just less memorable than the others. Coming on the heels of the series’ second “this feels like a good ending” moment, it has the difficult task of nudging Tiger and Del out of their routines. It does so with Tiger’s adult son, Neesha, talking them into going on “an adventure.” Without much indication that either of them is discontent with settled life, it feels forced for them to leave their toddler daughter and sword-dancer school behind for no good reason.
After a rambling start that honestly feels like a GM rolling random role-playing game encounters (“guard a caravan”, “sword-dancer challenge”), the story picks up steam when the trio arrive at Neesha’s family ranch and find it burned by bandits. There’s some tense drama with Neesha fearing his family dead, and a poignant callback with Del remembering the similar attack on her own family. Then everything culminates with Tiger risking all to rescue Del and their daughter from their nemesis, Umir.
Favorite moment: Near the end, Tiger is challenged for the umpteenth time by one of the junior sword-dancers. Roberson does a masterful job of subverting expectations; instead of Tiger dispatching the fool easily like before, it turns out to be a setup. Honorable mention goes to the emotional wallop of Tiger being forced to leave the stud behind after riding him nearly to death. Thankfully, the old boy made it home!
Sword-Singer (Book 2)
Sword-Singer is by far the most emotional volume of the series. Tiger and Del head north so Del can answer for the crime of killing her mentor. On the plus side, the book has some cool adventures. It’s a fun role reversal to see Tiger’s fish-out-of-water responses to the North contrasted with Del being back in her element. The culture of the North and Staal-Ysta was also a nice diversion from the first book.
Despite its good points, for much of the book Del is just an absolute jerk towards Tiger. And the way she bargained with his life at the end was almost unforgivable. I appreciate books with flawed characters, but not when they start acting like villains.
Favorite(?) moment: The duel between Tiger and Del at the end was beautifully set up and executed. It takes a brave storyteller to pit your two main characters against each other in a fight to the death. But man, I was about ready to throw the book across the room at the end.
Sword-Maker / Sword-Breaker (Books 3 & 4)
For the third and fourth books in the series, I couldn’t decide which one to rank higher. Eventually I realized that I think of them as one story, like a two-part epic TV finale. The story begins with the emotional aftermath of the brutal Tiger/Del duel at the end of Sword-Singer, and I appreciated that Roberson took the time for them to work through both their issues and their wounds.
There were so many big moments scattered throughout these two stories, culminating in Tiger and Del both on the run—Del for killing the man everyone believed to be the chosen one, and Tiger for breaking his sword-dancer oaths. Throw in a bunch of great supporting characters, and the books make for a pretty epic adventure. The only reason these books don’t rank higher on the list is the Chosa Dei storyline. Tiger’s inner fight with his magic sword just got tiresome after awhile.
Favorite moments (there were too many to pick just one):
- Del finally confronting Ajani.
- Tiger being unable to meet Abbu in the climactic dance because he was kicked in the head by his horse. Lol, I love the stud.
- Tiger's way of fulfilling the prophecy by digging irrigation trenches. Priceless.
- The final dance where both their swords are broken. What a way to end a series (even though it proved to not actually be over).
Sword-Sworn (Book 6)
Sword-Sworn, the follow-up to my least favorite book (Sword-Born) was like a breath of fresh air. Tiger and Del return to the South, and the series returns to its roots as a rollicking desert adventure. There are sandtiger attacks, simooms, double-crossing tanzeers, epic sword-dances, and a whole bunch of returning friends and enemies. Yes, a lot of it is a re-tread of things we’ve seen before, but with a different spin that makes it eminently satisfying.
On top of that, we get to see Tiger coming to terms with the adult son he never knew existed, and deciding to establish a new sword-dancer school to train a new generation. It once again felt like a fitting end to the series (and once again, happily, it wasn’t).
Favorite moment: Tiger finally gets the long-awaited showdown with Abbu Bensir to determine who really is the best sword-dancer in the South.
Sword-Dancer (Book 1)
Thirty-some years and seven books later, the original Sword-Dancer remains my favorite in the series. The plot is a straight-forward desert adventure with all the tropes you’d expect. But with elements like the titular sword-dance duels and varied desert tribes, Roberson has created a rich fantasy world.
It’s the characters, though, that really make the book stand out. From the opening paragraph, they’re painted so vividly they just fly off the page. At first, Tiger is an arrogant, sexist jerk and Del a vengeance-seeking ice queen. As the series progresses, they each challenge each others’ expectations and grow into characters that I keep coming back for, book after book.
Favorite moment: When Del finally finds her brother, but realizes he’s made a home among the Vashni. Heartbreaking.
You can read more of my thoughts about Sword-Dancer in my previous post about my favorite novels.
(for the series overall)
- Princess Power:
- Bechdel Test: Fail
Learn about my Ratings System.