I must say I am surprised at the relatively negative to mediocre reviews this new RJ novel has received. For my money, this is a legit contender for the best book in the series.
I would say that it is not a good time to jump aboard the RJ train, this book is really a continuation of the last few, and as the author warns, it is really a link in the chain of what is basically an Uber-arch that will take readers to the end of the RJ universe and ultimately link with the original Adversary Cycle (that The Tomb was originally a part before Jack became so popular he spawned his own series).
However, for a fan who has read the other books (even the teenage Jack tale) By The Sword is very very satisfying.
I have been a big fan of this series since I was turned onto Urban Fantasy a couple years back. While I have read and enjoyed all the books in the series, F Paul Wilson has a real tendency to "gut-punch" the reader. So much so that previous Jack adventures I have absolutely LOVED for 300 pages, will sour towards the end with the (usually VERY BRUTAL) death of a character you had come to like.
To illustrate, I absolutely loved the first 2 hours and 10 minutes of The Departed. So much so that by the time the "shocking" finale happened, I genuinely felt betrayed and "gut-punched" by how it played out. While I still appreciate the movie as a whole and think it is very good, the ending soured me to the extent that I can never think of the movie without being slightly disappointed.
Many Repairman Jack novels have a similar feel, and while I would rate them all (with the exception of The Haunted Air, which I found mediocre) at 4 stars or above, it is that tendency that prevents the whole series from being a 5 star epic masterpiece.
In fact, I would say this is far and away my biggest complaint about the series as a whole, you can never really attach yourself to any character that was not established as a mainstay in The Tomb (the first book in the series). After being burned a few times liking what end up being one-book characters, it became harder to empathize with new characters, knowing they would meet some horrendous fate before the end.
Not so with By The Sword.
For one, there really are no new characters that you expect anything from. Most of the cast consists of carryovers and the new guys are all villains you will just be wondering "when will Jack take care of this/these fool/s"?
Additionally, this has one of the most satisfying conclusions (I wont say ending, since the book admittedly closes in mid-stream, as FPW warned would be the case of the remaining Jack books) of the series. It is what separates this book from its companion and predecessor, (even if you expect the gut-punch, it still stings) Bloodlines. While I liked that book a lot, the ending was very unsatisfying . I imagine part of that has to do with the fact that the one semi-new character is just so cool and ALIVE at the end of BtS!
Being a big Samurai fan, the plot of the book was very captivating and the execution flawless. Jack was at his usual brutal best manipulating his enemies into fighting each other while he watches and cleans up the mess, and the action really felt almost as good as in All The Rage (my favorite RJ book). Those reviews that claim the book was confusing are baffling to me, as I felt everything was well coordinated and all the pieces seemed to fit together nicely. I can only speak for myself, but at no point in the novel was I confused or wondering "what's happening" or "who is he again?".
While BtS has a LOT of players, Jack still has plenty of page time and I really did not notice him playing a "diminished role" as others have complained. After 11 books I am frankly very tired of Gia and Vicky both, so not having them in the book was a welcome surprise, I hope they continue to be relegated to secondary characters throughout the remainder of the series.
What I really liked as well was all the filling in of the overall universe. If you have not read the Adversary Cycle (which I have not as yet) this and Bloodlines really provided good exposition for what the hell is going on in the world and why Jack is so involved in it all.
Overall it was just a really enjoyable experience that left me eager for the next installment. And I would disagree with another reviewer who says that The Otherness is not what makes RJ good. While it is not the only aspect that makes the stories click, it certainly adds a layer of interest that would not exist were it just a series about an Urban Mercenary.
and without the Otherness there would be no Rasolom, no Glaeken and no Lady, and the RJ world would be a much less interesting place to visit without 'em.