I'm looking for a book I read in the early 1990s that is probably a bit older than that. I picked it up in paperback off a used-book rack in bad condition, and it had one of those extra-generic 1980s painted covers, so might have been a decade older. For some reason, when it came back to my mind, I thought it was by David Drake, but nothing I can find from his limited fantasy output matches it.

The basic worldbuilding conceit of the novel is that everyone has a D&D-style "class" and experience level visible to everyone as glyphs or tattoos on their forehead, which apparently appear by magical means; they aren't applied by the people themselves. The glyphs are easy to interpret, for example sailors have anchors on their foreheads, and more anchors means a better sailor. Likewise, merchants all have barrels.

Another interesting detail is that the world is relatively small and organized around a circular river. It's not a canal; there is a current and so forth. However, sailing downriver for long enough will eventually loop around to the same places that were passed upriver.

The plot revolves around a vague conspiracy, which I recall as just "basic economic literacy" without remembering the details. The key point is that it's carried out by a certain character class with distinctive forehead markings that no-one can recognize or understand. Apparently all people with this marking are involved in the conspiracy, so it amounts to an indication that the person cannot be trusted; as a result, they must be very indirect.

The main character is recruited to investigate the conspiracy by some members of the merchant class, because he is a Conan-type superior physical specimen. This is indicated not only by his physique, but because he has a large number of swords on his forehead, more than anyone has ever seen before. However, it turns out that this isn't the whole story; his body is that of a great warrior, but it has had someone else's mind stuffed into it. This is a reader-relatable character who "died in the real world" and then found his real-world personality transferred into the impressive body.

So far as I'm aware it was a standalone book, not a part of a series, despite setting up quite a lot of worldbuilding tropes as I've mentioned.


1 Answer 1


This is Dave Duncan's The Reluctant Swordsman.

Wallie figured it was fever when he awoke, not in his hospital, but in the body of a brawny barbarian. A swordsman of the seventh rank, Wallie was now the master of a beautiful slave girl and a cunning blade. His mission: to serve a Goddess--even though he had never fought before! Original.

It is a part of a series (a trilogy of at least four books). I happened to have read it several years ago, and remembered the plot points of the forehead symbols and the inhabiting personality from our world.

  • 1
    I've found an Amazon review that mentions the circular river and the forehead tattoos, but I can't link to it from my phone. If this is your answer, you can accept it by clicking on the checkmark by the voting buttons.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Jun 21, 2019 at 20:16
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    You answered it before I was even allowed to hit the checkmark. Yes, this is definitely it; it seems I got my Daves confused. Jun 21, 2019 at 20:18
  • Welcome to the site!
    – FuzzyBoots
    Jun 21, 2019 at 20:20

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