The subtitle of this book is A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers and Olympic Champions. In the time honored tradition of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Cohen could have said Or How I’ll use a Couple of Interesting Chapters in Order to Make You Read a History of Fencing (citing the obscure reference).
This first few chapters of this book were really excellent. Perhaps I should say that the Prologue was outstanding, and it slowly lost its momentum from there. Cohen expertly describes one of his fencing meets. I was drawn in and brought the book home from the store. I soon learned a bevy of interesting facts.
We shake hands to show that we are not reaching for our swords; a gentleman offers a lady his right arm because at one time his sword was at his left hip; a man’s coat buttons left over right, so that a duelist may unbutton it with his left, unarmed hand.
The culture of the sword, its history and evolution follow for the next few chapters. My favorite was Chapter 7, Where the Soul is the Sword. The history of the sword in Japan was explored and has always piqued my interest. Japan took it beyond honor, justice, and chivalry and made it a religion and way of life.
Cohen does an admirable job of tracing the evolution of the sword. He discusses the changes in technology, in use, in art, and in the settling of disputes through the years. For the first two hundred pages, it is an expertly researched and written historical account of one of the oldest tools of war. The change from historical novel to a book about fencing is subtle. As it begins to change, he draws you in to the history of sword play in movies. For a while, it’s still interesting that it isn’t the sword we’re talking about, but rather what was being done with the sword outside of war and duels. By the three hundred page mark, I was fully suspicious of what was going on. I just didn’t care about the French school of fencing and how it differed from the Italians. Or that the Hungarians became unbeatable in saber, but their top master was an Italian. Fencing is interesting, but it should have been a chapter, not the second half of the book in my opinion.
I definitely recommend Part 1, From Egypt to Waterloo and Part 2, The Search for Perfection. Part 3, The Duel’s High Noon and Part 4, Wounded Warriors were still pretty interesting. However, unless you are a true fencing aficionado, stop there. Part 5, Great Powers, and Part 6, Faustian Pacts (cool name) are duds. I skipped through most of it.
Rating 2.5 out of 5 (Can I do that? I think I can, after all I made up the system. A two star is wishing I’d given up at page 100. But I wish I had given up at page 300. I found parts of it pretty entertaining, which is close to a three….so 2.5. That just happened.)
By the way, I hope you like the new name of the blog. Libzig may be a great site I built (shamless plug) for keeping track of your Library, but it doesn’t tell you much about the blog. I think Judging a Book by its Cover is pretty appropriate.