Sword-Dancer is an admirable introduction to the six-volume adventures of Tiger and Del, one of fantasy's more popular and appealing odd couples. The tale begins when Del, a dazzling blonde swordsmistress from the frozen north, tracks down the Sandtiger (Tiger for short), a smug, rascally rapscallion in the "young Clint Eastwood by way of a young Brando by way of every romance novel studmuffin ever written" mode, who plies his trade as a "sword-dancer" in the harsh Southron desert country. Del is looking for her brother, captured by raiders and sold into slavery five years before. Though he clearly thinks she's on a hopeless quest, Tiger agrees to be Del's guide in the hopes he can get some of that sexy northern poosay. In the south, you see, women are concubines, property, chattel, barely human at all. So one wielding a sword and being all independent is something of a novelty, and even a turn-on.
The two characters are the core of this book. The story is narrated by Tiger, and though his rakishness is the stuff of cliché Roberson writes him with enough wit and self-awareness that objections are handily overcome. In particular, I admired how she made Tiger as likable as he is while keeping all of his macho cockiness and prurient interests intact. I think a lot of female writers would turn a character like that into an utterly loathsome feminist cliché illustrating in easy-to-grasp one-dimensional terms the evils of men and their icky hormonal one-track minds and power trips. Roberson, clearly a much more light-hearted soul, realizes that you're just supposed to have fun with this kind of thing. (Although I got so sick of the ludicrous all-purpose swear-word she had made up — "hoolies," which is uttered by Tiger no fewer than a zillion times — I could've smacked her. Note to writers: made-up profanities are never not lame.)
What I found even more impressive was her characterization of Del. Again, I hate to focus on the gender issue here, but all too often I see female fantasists turning their heroines into exceedingly earnest, almost saintly archtypes of stalwart heroism. (Many times these writers are creating an idealized image of themselves, I think.) Del is a massive bundle of neuroses. She's a true master with her blade — about which there is a provocative secret, by the way — and is frustrated by the way the men of the south, Tiger included, simply refuse to take her seriously even when she openly demonstrates the superiority of her skill. On the other hand, Del will manipulate and play head games if it will get her what she wants. She's had to learn that as a basic survival tool. And her obsessive and absolutely sincere quest for her kid brother clouds her rationality; though she's hired Tiger as a guide she's often loath to take his advice. Of the two leads she is the colder and more emotionally detached, a role reversal from the norm to be sure. But she's a character who wins over your sympathies because her flaws are believable and all too human, and her love for the sibling she has lost is burning brightly beneath the cold and hard exterior.
Is there anything terribly original about Tiger and Del's growing relationship? Not at first. Roberson handles the inevitable sexual tension so ham-fistedly it just doesn't register as tension of any kind. There are even dialogue exchanges of the you're-jealous/no-I'm-not variety, that only underscore how perfunctory it all is. One wonders how much the then-current TV hit Moonlighting was an influence here. But by the end of the book, Roberson has effectively stopped resorting to the obvious and delves into her characters' pasts, fears, and motivations with real skill.
It takes a while for the actual story in Sword-Dancer to become worthy of its leads. For most of the book's length, I found myself just a little impatient that nothing was really happening and that there were few real dangers facing Tiger and Del in their journey. Sure, there are encounters with various baddies as the pair forge their way across the harsh desert, but these come across mostly as incoveniences that Tiger and Del overcome with relative ease before moving on to the next one. In fact you could say that the episodic nature of the storyline resembles an RPG more than a novel. Suspense was at a bare minimum, when it was even there at all.
But in the last hundred pages Roberson comes out swinging and delivers some dramatically powerful sequences with such aplomb you realize she's deftly saved her best for last. And the finale is entirely satisfying. While I might have liked a bit more consistency throughout, a bottom-of-the-ninth comeback is always a glorious thing to behold. There's no denying that by the end of Sword-Dancer, Roberson will have fantasy fans dancing in the streets.