Saturday, December 28, 2013

Review of The Queen of Air and Darkness by Poul Anderson

While authors like Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe, and others get credit for writing science fantasy, it may be, in fact, Poul Anderson who has written the highest quantity of such material.  Nearly every story intruding fantasy into the real, his 1971 The Queen of Air and Darkness is no exception. Novella, novelette, or short story (depending which award nomination you take into account), it is an interesting clash of fairy and the real world.

Blossoming like a fairy tale, The Queen of Air and Darkness opens with the kidnapping of a small boy.  Stolen away in the night from a remote research station on the planet Roland by the Outlings, his mother, Barbro, calls the local police to get help.  Such disappearances relatively common on the yet unsettled planet, they offer no assistance.  Refusing to believe a search of the barren hinterlands would be fruitless, Barbro contacts a local detective, Sherrinford, who knows the unexplored regions well, and together the two go in search of the lost child.  Meeting the titular Queen, however, may prove more than planetary adventure.

Blending two modes of storytelling (like Anderson’s other notable novella The Saturn Game), The Queen of Air and Darkness alternates back and forth, linguistically and plot-wise, between Barbro and Sherrinford, and the Outlings.  Drawing both points of view into the conclusion, Anderson uses the clashing effect to highlight the difference in worldviews.  The matter resolved in a similar thematic fashion as The Saturn Game, the conclusion proves which side of the science fantasy coin Anderson falls.

A good portion of the narrative tied up in conversation between Sherrinford and Barbro about the nature of myth, fairy, and the possibilities yet undiscovered on Roland, the reader should prepare themselves for a bit of preaching.  Anderson uncharacteristically allowing his own voice to take over the text occasionally, the story is in fact resolved several pages before the end, the last bit reserved for a bit of polemics on Sherrinford’s part.  Not an ideal way to exit the literary stage.  Given the title of the novella is the same as the second book in T.H. White's The Once and Future King series, it's also possible Anderson was in dialogue with the work.

In the end, The Queen of Air and Darkness is a story fully utilizing myth and fairy to tell a contemporary tale.  In another contemporary parallel, hints of Zelazny, Vance, and Le Guin can be found.  Only partially a cultural clash, Anderson uses the setup more along ideological terms, the human and “fairy” world more symbolic than representative.


  1. Yes, I really loved that book, and all of Anderson's work. Many years after I first read it, I was struck with how the movie 'Avatar' has a similar theme, and I wonder whether Cameron had read Anderson's novella? I personally prefer the Anderson version, without the Hollywood hype.

  2. I think Ursula Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest may have served Cameron as inspiration...