The Misenchanted Sword by Lawrence Watt-Evans
What an odd book! (--in a good way.)
Some time ago, nihilistic_kid posted the George Costanza of writing advice--do the exact opposite of whatever your instincts tell you to do. This book, originally published in 1985 (now re-released as a mmpb with a misspelled typo on the copyright page--adorable little book!) is exactly that book for me. Just about everything in it is just the opposite of what I would do.
Picture this: You have a book in your hand in which the protagonist is a former soldier and special assassin who, now that the war is over, runs his own inn. Word gets out about who he used to be, as they naturally do, and people try to lure him out of retirement for a special mission...
Now, where do you think this would appear in the book? Page 3? Page 10? Actually, it's page 250 or so. The cliched opening is buried well into the book, and the protagonist wants nothing to do with adventure of any kind. He hates fighting, resents his magic sword and would rather live as though it didn't exist at all. And that's what he does.
Let's back up: The story opens in the middle of a centuries-long war. Valder is a scout trapped behind enemy lines and fleeing from a patrol. He stumbles on a hermit-wizard's hut and, through a series of event that are not complicated but that I can't type in before my lunch break ends, winds up with a magic sword. An unbeatable magic sword.
Except the magic doesn't work all that well. Well, it works, but with some annoying limitations.
Once he rejoins his unit, he's drafted as an assassin. Now, if I'd written the book, I'd have described a couple of his missions. That doesn't happen here. The assassinations all take place off-screen (so to speak). That section of the book is almost entirely devoted to Valder's time at the castle: hanging with his friends, fretting about his assignment, and the women he meets.
When the war ends, Valder is nowhere near the action. In fact, the war is ended by the gods, who step in, defeat the foreigners and voila! Peace! Our protagonist is kicking back in his room when it happens.
The next section of the book--and it's quite a long one--deals with his mustering out and wandering around his own country in peacetime. A lot of men are suddenly out of work, and the economy is in shambles. What's an ex-soldier to do if he doesn't want to farm and has no interest in the magic sword on his hip?
That next section is the bulk of the book, and it's largely an account of life after wartime. Eventually, Valder realizes that, while the sword will keep him alive for a very long time, it won't protect him from injury or stop the aging process. At the end of his life, the sword becomes important again as he realizes that he's destined to be an invalid that can never die. How can he find a dignified end to his life?
This is a very relaxing novel. The protagonist isn't insightful or philosophical--he doesn't spend his days at the castle thinking about the intricasies of loyalty or duty. There are no deep moral quandries. He's just a regular guy, not particularly smart or skilled, who isn't even sure what he wants out of life.
It's a genial book. That's how I would describe it. Genial.
And boy, did I ever need genial these last couple weeks.