The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
1954. The same year that The Fellowship of the Ring came out. And yet, this is arguably a better book.
What? No way! But what about JRRT's depth of world-building, the gradual easing of modest characters into epic ones? What about the language? How could a single fantasy novel by a popular SF author outdo one of the standards of literature?
Easy. Make characters as sharp and bright as arrows, fit them into the bow of a world, and let them fly straight and true. Give them immediate adventure, no superfluous quests or long-winded reliance on the little annoying things like lembas this and lembas that, and throw them deep into revenge, epic love stories, swords that will chop down the world-tree, incest, the undead, and the machinations of the Norse gods. And of course, you can't have a tale without witches, trolls, elves, and dwarves, especially when they are NOT the derivative of JRRT, that they are derived precisely from the epic tales of Norse legends, that they are as old and deep and rich as the real peoples who have been telling these tales for over a thousand years, and we're not forgetting Wagner's Ring Cycle, are we? Oh wait... who is taking what story elements from whom? Oh... right...
So why is this short and truly tight Norse epic pretty much ignored? Oh, I suppose it has something to do with the times it came out. Everything needed a Christian motif back then, and this sure as hell didn't have it, even if the Christian god had a walk-on role, as did the olympians, so of course Narnia and JRRT were given a lot more talk-time. But imagine, if you will, if this nearly perfect adventure-epic were given a fresh splash of paint and a huge advertising budget. Not as a movie, but as a fantastically rich book who's time has finally come?
I think we're ready as a culture to open ourselves up to a truly fascinating mythos that has really been left on the sideboard for way too long. Gaiman's Mr. Wednesday aside, or The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, of course.
This was one hell of a rip-roaring adventure, with cloven heads and high adventure, stormed walls, deceit, sex, revenge, and horror. It's easily all the best aspects of the huge epic fantasy door-stoppers in an easy to digest format, with beautiful poetry literally flowing through it, and best of all, it never has a dull moment or dull characters. It is, in short, a work of true brilliance.
And let's not let things like this disappear, shall we? Let's not assume that the most well-known works are always the best. (I feel like a traitor, saying so, because I've read JRRT's stuff over 7 times.)
A side note, my postscript:
Poul Anderson's opening to the novel was a real eye-opener. He just had to tell us that his intent was to call attention to the magic and the races as high-tech analogues, as per Clarke's law. There was no direct explanation or reveal in the text, though, so he wanted us to feel like we were in a perfect fantasy novel, but the fact that he did put the question to us first means that he intended us to read on several levels at once, and because I obliged him, this novel managed to blow my mind in several ways at once. This was no idle fancy. This was a master storyteller asking us to enjoy it as deeply as he wrote it.
What a guy. :)
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