Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review of "The Broken Sword" by Poul Anderson

In fantasy today it’s not uncommon to hear the words “dark” and “gritty” applied to such writers as David Gemmell, Paul Kearney, JoeAbercrombie, George R.R. Martin, or Brian Ruckley.  Each willing to kill favorite characters, portray morally ambiguous heroes, and elucidate more than one gory scene, readers have taken a shine to their rather anti-Tolkien view.  But these writers are still not as dark as Poul Anderson’s and his 1954 classic The Broken Sword.  Bleak in outcome and tone, Anderson’s short epic makes each look like a fairy tale in comparison.  The brooding, black cloud of narrative alone is enough to divide readers.  Thankfully back in print after a lengthy absence from the shelves, this classic of mid 20th century fantasy literature is simply a must read for fans of modern epic fantasy.  The Broken Sword is as dark as it gets.  

Wholly retrospective, The Broken Sword is also as mythic as fantasy gets.  Were the book written 500 years ago, it would be part of the Western canon.  Plot and outcome the focus, setting, dialogue, and philosophical exposition are kept to the barest minimum telling of the ill-fated mortal Skafloc, his evil twin, Valard, and their lives among the elves and trolls of North Sea yesteryear.  Not the immortal angels of Tolkien, Anderson’s elves maintain the grace yet act with impunity.  For the most selfish of reasons, they steal Skafloc from his mother the night he is born, replacing him with the changeling born of an ugly troll, Valard.  One raised by elves, the other humans, trolls, and a witch, their paths to adulthood take two different routes.  Their fate, however, lies in the same place. 
Both being works of epic fantasy published in the mid ‘50s; both using Nordic myth as story foundation; both having trolls, elves, songs and poetry, quests, broken swords, lost kingdoms, and epic battles, the comparison of the The Broken Sword to Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings is inevitable.  One technically a comedy and the other tragedy, there are, however, a far larger number of differences.  Tolkien extrapolates heavily on Volsung Saga and Poetic Edda until the resemblance is minimal.  Anderson, however, tells a story whose blood flows in the same veins as the two famous Nordic myths.  Tolkien’s epic is divided into three lengthy volumes, while Anderson tells his tale in a succinct 274 pages, not a detail amiss. And while Tolkien manipulates characters to avoid confronting loss and tragedy, Anderson embraces the fates of the people in his world, death happening early and often to any and all.  Both are romances, but only Anderson’s ends in tears.
The prose plucked from yesteryear, The Broken Sword’s grand, effortless language is like stepping into the past to read of Achilles battling Hector, or Beowulf, Grendel.  Arcane in syntax and style, readers who dislike “fancy” sentence structure should look elsewhere.  For those who revel in formal yet keen description and dialogue, the book will be a real treat.  Moreover, the distance Anderson maintains from the characters allows the reader to view events with insouciance.  Room for the imagination to color events as it pleases, the author’s spare yet incisive style provides a certain degree of freedom to better participate in the story while being guided effortlessly forward.
In the end, The Broken Sword is a well crafted epic of mythic proportions written in high-quality prose.  Beowulf meets the Iliad, characters are larger than life yet retain an innate connection to humanity so as to remain empathetic.  Power, glory, hubris, the cycle of violence, honor, love, and fate—the main staples of myth—are thus the major themes.  As the classic tales of the Nords is the source medium, a host of related works exist: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Last Light ofthe Sun, Nancy Farmer’s Sea of Trolls series, David Drake’s Northworld, and Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight to name a few.  But when it comes to style, readers will find book has more in common with Lord Dunsany, William Morris, and E.R. Eddison.  Fans of Moorcock’s Elric will find the seed idea for Stormbringer while readers who think The Lord of the Rings pretentious and bloated will enjoy Anderson’s Spartan prose and decisive movement of events.  A well crafted story, The Broken Sword is worthy of being a fantasy masterwork and defines dark fantasy.

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