From the cover and the blurb you might think that this book is a thriller, a story of modern-day sword fighting in a clandestine, to-the-death competition. But while it is that, it is actually a confessional, an unsuspected glimpse into the deepest hopes and desires of the author. Apart from writing, Michael Edelson is also well known as a practitioner of HEMA, the quest to rediscover historical European martial arts from ancient manuscripts. And when I say martial arts, this mainly relates to sword fighting although as the HEMA movement has grown the martial arts being resurrected have expanded to include skills like wrestling and the quarter staff. But the core of HEMA remains sword fighting – proper sword fighting, not the technical discipline of sports fencing which, with the adoption of electronic scoring, has moved further and further away from its roots in two men trying to kill each other.
So, what are the deepest hopes and desires of a leading HEMA practitioner? It turns out, rather like those of most of the rest of us. The protagonist of The Talhoffer Society runs a HEMA club in America; he makes a living but it’s a struggle, a struggle made worse by continuing feelings of futility over what he has dedicated his life to. After all, what does it matter how people fought with swords four centuries ago? But then he receives a message inviting him to take part in a clandestine sword fighting tournament, a tournament in which the swords will be sharp and the fighting real. The intention is not to kill the opponent but, with sharps, the possibility exists. What’s more, he will be paid extremely handsomely for his participation.
Our hero decides to take part, at first as a plant for the FBI, later for the sake of the competition itself. For not only does he find the competition intoxicating, but he falls in love with another competitor and he realises that the competition itself is highly valued by the rich and powerful men who are sponsoring it. In particular, the Japanese, for whom sword fighting and sword making are still living traditions, sponsor the competition as an expression of the deep soul of the Japanese people.
In the end, our hero fights in the competition, gets the girl, learns the meaning of fighting with swords when his life is on the line and becomes part of a larger organisation committed to returning the skills of historical European sword fighting to their place at the heart of Western civilisation.
As a confession of the deepest hopes and wishes of the writer, it’s pretty comprehensive! The wish-fulfilment fantasy of a HEMA practitioner, all wrapped up in some excellent fights. Edelson, unlike the vast majority of writers, knows what he’s talking about when writing about sword fights.
Read The Talhoffer Society for its unexpected glimpse into a man’s soul, the most accurate sword fights in print and a good story of HEMA wishes coming true.