Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Broken Sword

Third in the Must-Read challenge.

I knew the name Poul Anderson, but I tended to see him as more of a science fiction author than a fantasy one. It was an unfair view, because like many of the early SFF authors Anderson crossed genres. He was actually well regarded as a fantasy author, being one of only 8 members of S.A.G.A (the Swordsmen and Sorcerors' Guild of America, Ltd), membership was limited to authors of the sword and sorcery subgenre of fantasy (the other 7 members were: Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, John Jakes, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Andre Norton and Jack Vance) august company indeed. The Broken Sword, which Poul Anderson wrote in the early 50's (it was first published in 1954) is a fantasy classic and it tends to defy categorisation, there are elements of S&S in it, but it's more than a barbarian hack and slash fest.

The Broken Sword is a short book, especially by today's doorstopper standard, it weighs in at just over 200 pages, but not one of those pages is wasted. The story follows it's hero; Skafloc, a child born of Orm the Strong, a Viking who settles in England, Skafloc is stolen by the Elf King Imric and in his place is placed Valgard, the result of a union between Imric and a captive troll lady. Eventually the two men clash and while the story builds to the inevitable battle between Skafloc and Valgard there is so much more to this story.

There's a vengeful witch, the war between elves and trolls, a forbidden love affair between Skafloc and his sister Freda. There's a patricide by the tortured Valgard, and the adventure of Skafloc and his Sidhe compatnion Mananaan to reforge the broken sword of the title. In fact the adventures that Skafloc and Mananaan have whilst trying to return from Jotunheim back to Alfheim would have made a book of their own, they are covered briefly, but you got the impression there was more material for Anderson here and it's a shame he never got to explore it.

There seems to be a misconception among readers new to the fantasy genre that hard edged, gritty and gory fantasy began with authors like George R R Martin and his epic A Song of Ice and Fire, this is not the case. While Anderson drew on Norse legends and the sword and sorcery work of Robert E. Howard, Martin has drawn on Anderson and his contemporaries. It even has the bleak sort of ending that is so beloved of Martin.

The Broken Sword is the work of a master and there's not a lot wrong with it. Some of the wording was a little old fashioned in parts, I could have done with a few less 'erenows', but even that assists Anderson in setting the mood he's was trying to evoke.

There doesn't seem to be a lot of Norse themed fantasy around if anyone enjoys what Poul Anderson has done with The Broken Sword. The only thing I can think to recommend are the works of Elizabeth Boyer, she wrote 3 Norse themed series between 1980 and 1995 (World of the Alfar, Wizard's War and Skyla), however she has stopped writing, so the books may be hard to find.


  1. I just won Anderson's Brain Wave and now I'm really excited about it. At first it was just a name I'd heard and that's why I entered the contest. Thanks for the review.

  2. No problem, Seak. I'd like to read some more of his stuff when I finally get a clear spot in the ever growing TBR pile.