Today – two very short reviews of books different by any measure but background – both are deeply rooted in Nordic myths. The use their respective authors make of said background is very different but that doesn’t change the fact that I enjoyed both of them. And as a bonus – a few words on author smart and influential, but not widely known outside hardcore genre fans.
Innovative use of mythology in complicated multi-faceted story (for the fifties) vs undemanding fun. Which might mean that you’ll go thrugh 580 p. “Odin” faster than through 231 p. “Sword”, but that’s no way to judge the relative value of books. It’s not a contest, I just wanted to write two short reviews, so I needed two books having something in common 😉
Recently, when commenting on infamous “The Last Ringbearer” I said that to find complicated, morally dubious Elves, one should read Sapkowski. And I stand by that statement, but another book that offers an unusual look at this fair race is “The Broken Sword” by Poul Anderson, prolific but slightly forgotten author. The book published in 1954, incidentally a year when certain other book was published as well. Tolkien is, deservedly, more famous, but Anderson is also worth a look. It is not without reason that some important names were involved in his recent tribute anthology by the renowned Subterranean Press.
Ok, Tolkien’s win is clear to me and I might not be alone in this view, but some important people, like Michael Moorcock, beg to differ. For him, “The Broken Sword” is, in short:
a fast-paced doom-drenched tragedy in which human heroism, love and ambition, manipulated by amoral gods, elves and trolls, led inevitably to tragic consequences.
And it’s way better than Tolkien. It’s consistent with Moorcock’s view on fantasy in general. And Moorcock’s views are interesting, regardless on whether you agree with them or not. Not by accident an article about him in New Yorker was entitled “The Anti-Tolkien”. To counter Tolkien’s vision he offered his anti-heroes, like Elric, representing dying empires, diminished races and reflecting post-colonial, post-II World War West. He was leftist in his political view, and indifferent to religion – a self declared creation of post religious Europe. His most popular cycle is that of Elric of Melnibone, his most important literary trope – the Eternal Champion. Role playing games are indebted to him for creating the Law and Chaos opposition (whatever the inspirations were, that”s how it got introduced to fantasy), a something different from Good/Evil axis – basic D&D alignment system was based on this. Oh, and the multiverse. Do read the links to get a better picture.
Unfortunately, my first encounter with Moorcock was Gloriana. I didn’t like it. I was 13 or 14 and the problem was not the amount of sex in the novel. It was the way it was presented. The harem of weirdoes and eternally unsatisfied queen overshadowed subtle parody, political machinations and deliberations upon nature of power. And I didn’t know enough to appreciate the way it undermined prevailing views on British history. After that I had no inclination to continue with Moorcock, until a couple of years ago I read an Elric story in some anthology. It was good, I will read more one day and maybe write more about the author.
Back to “The Broken Sword”. Moorcock’s review shows its strong points better than anything I could have written. For me, it lacks the scope of Tolkien’s vision, the depth of Middle-Earth and to compare it with The Trilogy is, frankly, blasphemy. But it is still a very good novel. Dark story, with fatalism taken from Norse mythology, atmosphere not unlike that of T.H. White, I can agree with Moorcock on that (although lacking the warm irony of ToaFK). Christianity against the old cults, elves fighting to keep their place in the changing world and troll invasions. Deep, conflicted heroes and villains (which is which – that’s sometimes hard to decide), betrayals, love, tragedy. Strong female characters (supporting roles, but still). But it’s short, in many ways predictable (as classical sagas often are), ant the elves… are not the elves I love. It’s personal, but it influenced my opinion on “The Broken Sword” heavily.
To sum it up – worth reading for somebody looking for a “deeper”, darker fantasy. Or Thorgal fans.
And wasn’t I supposed to mention another book… “The Age of Odin”, yes. It’s a part of a series of thematically-connected stand-alones by James Lovegrove. The basic, very cool, idea of modern military forces fighting gods and monsters is repeated far too many times. We have “The Ages of”: Ra, Zeus, Odin, Aztec, Voodoo, Shiva, Anansi and Satan. “The Age of Odin” was a nice read and a page-turner. With “The Broken Sword” it shares not only Nordic inspirations, but also Great Britain as a place of action. Quality of writing, level of sophistication of the plot, research done on explored mythology – are vastly different.
Downsides: weak characters, roughly sketched and rather stereotypical. Like the main protagonist: tough veteran, traumatised, swearing and estranged from his family, but a good defender of the realm. Who joins the gods’ side in Ragnarok and way to quickly becomes one of the major players. Or tough and sexy Valkyries. Thor slightly similar to his Marvel characterisation, but dumber and shorter-tempered. Actually, while the author certainly is familiar with comics, I’m not so sure he had ever read the Eddas.
Cool stuff: Aesir with guns. Ragnarok in our times. With guns. Fast action, lots of explosions. Could be a nice movie, if done right.
Nuff said. That should be enough to any experienced reader to judge whether it’s a book for him/her (and let’s face it – in this case, “him” more likely than “her”. That’s not sexism, that’s statistics).
It is a cool book to read, an interesting idea developed into a sort of “gun and sorcery” pulp. I will probably never read the rest of these books, but I don’t consider time spent on this one to be wasted.