Thoughts on the Broken Sword

The Broken Sword, perhaps the best known and most renowned of Poul Anderson’s novels, is the third book of his that I’ve read, and with that I put a notch in the last of his Appendix N entries.

My feelings on this one are mixed. Of the three I’ve gotten to thus far, my favorite has been the High Crusade (which Gita just recently reviewed). The Broken Sword is a skillfully crafted example of what a fantasy story can be when a talented writer just lets loose and does what he wants. Goblins and dwarves? Of course. Christ plus a bunch of Norse gods? Sure. Throw in some Celtic godlings and crap while you’re at it! Cursed sword, changeling berserker, elf vs troll war, oodles of magic – get it all in! Why?! Because it’s fun and cool!!

Before we get into spoiler territory, let me just say that there’s a lot to unpack here. The Broken Sword has plenty going on. Anderson’s fluency with Scandinavian (and other) folklore is on full display, and though this one perhaps contributed less directly to the worlds of D&D and vanilla fantasy tropes than Three Hearts and Three Lions, that’s not for lack of creative and wondrous material.

Now let me get to some specifics. *Spoilers ahead!*

“Be nice to your sister”

Ok, let’s just get this out of the way first. There’s a lot of incest. Now it’s not really distastefully done; it’s reasonable for the characters given that they’re unaware of their siblinghood; it’s integral to the story. Yada yada yada. Sorry, it just bugged me. To expand upon that a bit:

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I found the amount of ink spent not only developing but emphasizing the love between Freda and Skafloc to be excessive. We get to have to read about their lovemaking, kissing, cuddling, yearning for one another, tickle fights, and all those tender moments. It may have been a little too much for me had it been a non-incestuous union, but in this case, yeah. I just got sick of reading about it.

Pacing

This may very well be on me and the fact that I spaced out my reading of the book for so long (it’s only like 200-something pages, if I recall correctly), but I found the story a bit slow until the last quarter-ish. Don’t get me wrong – there’s plenty of action and interesting happenings, but I felt like it was all setup and not really the main event. I mean we knew there was this magic sword waiting to be reforged and wielded; we knew Skafloc was (probably) going to find out eventually about his parentage and that he was banging his sister; we knew that Skaloc and Valgard were heading for a showdown. But none of that stuff happened until the end. That’s fine, I guess. Really that’s the point of the climax. But I felt like it was a long wait for the payoff.

Drow and gods and things

That said, there’s a lot of cool stuff going on. I found the sparingly employed appearances of the Norse gods to be exciting (Odin is a prick, by the way) and was pleasantly surprised to see Irish deities and spirits showing up, as well. We even get mention of shen and oni, though they’re not prominently featured (nor do they need to be). One of my favorite parts of the story is when Skafloc sets out to Jotunheim with a Celtic sea godling. Though I did find it a little lame when Anderson tosses in couple lines that basically say “and the two had many awesome adventures and kickass brawls, but I’m not gonna write about those, so.”

The story also offers the earliest use I’ve come across of the term “drow,” which these days just evokes Drizzt and his crew of OP, Forgotten Realm goth elves. So that was pretty neat.

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Demon sword 

The titular broken sword turns out to be the cursed blade Tyrfing, a weapon right out of Norse mythology. I’ve been saying for a while that Durindana needs more love, but really I welcome the namedropping of any non-Excalibur weapon. Nothing against Excalibur or the sword in the stone; they’ve just been done to death.

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The Broken Sword also most likely played a role in the inception of Moorcock’s Elric character. It’s been noted that Moorcock was an Anderson fan and that his whole Chaos/Law alignment system smacks of Anderson’s Three Heart’s and Three Lions. So does his demon blade, Stormbringer (and also Mournblade, I suppose) strongly resemble Tyrfing in some regards: perilous, evil, a tool of malicious gods, and also granting a supernatural strength and fighting prowess. When wielded, Tyrfing’s grim influence affects Skafloc’s personality, driving him to cruelty , fury, and violence. So does Stormbringer possess its own demonic personality – a dark will that Elric must subdue and overcome.

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Stumble

It happens to the best – a scene that makes you scratch your head. I complained about this in my thoughts on King David’s Spaceship and Triplanetary.

There’s a part in the story where Skafloc has infiltrated the troll-occupied castle of Alfheim, the former seat of Imric, Skafloc’s kidnapper and foster father. He seeks to steal away the secretly hidden broken sword and have it reforged. As he makes his way to Valgard’s chamber, he encounters a troll sentry. They do battle and he slays his foe. Though he worries about being detected, no one seems to have heard. Ok, good.

So he climbs some stairs and proceeds to the lord’s quarters, where he finds Leea and Valgard. His antagonist is asleep, and he wishes he could kill him but decides he cannot risk the noise.

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Aw come on, Poul. Maybe you wrote yourself into a corner and didn’t want to revise or overthink this, but just feels nonsensical. Skafloc has just brawled with a killed a troll outside in the hall and no one had heard. But now that he’s facing a sleeping enemy (I’ll note one of the strongest and powerful leaders of the troll army and one he’s got a grudge against), he’s afraid that he’ll make too much noise? Let’s not forget that Skafloc is almost elfin in his grace and agility while still a superbly strong human man. And he’s not up to the task of clamping a hand over Valgard’s mouth and quickly slicing open his throat? Meh.

Not really a major sticking point, but it stood out to be as a “wut” moment.

The elves!

This may warrant a write-up of its own, as I’ve had longish Twitter debates on the topic, but Anderson writes of a different, older kind of elf than we see these days. Tolkien popularized the image of elves as tall, graceful, honorable, and good. That’s not to say that elves have historically been villains only, but it certainly used to be a more common role for them and fey in general.

But the Broken Sword is pre-Tolkien, and we get another look at elfin kind. When it comes down to troll versus elf, the latter comes out looking pretty good. They’re fair to look upon, often merry, and usually they don’t come across as especially cruel or sadistic. However they’re pagan beings – they cannot bear holy words or symbols, and they fear the White Christ. They perform unholy magics, such as being able to call upon the dead (though this is a rare and dark ritual). When they can get away with it, they steal human infants. They’re wanton both in bed and in battle.

Now Tolkien may not have meant his elves to just be guys with pointy ears who live in the woods and are good at archery and magic. To be fair to him, his portrayal of the elves of Mirkwood in the Hobbit was a little more sinister than the image we all have now of Orlando Bloom as Legolas. May not be his fault, but that’s what we’ve got, and that’s what D&D elves, for example, tend towards.

Contrast that again with Anderson’s elves, who favor cavalry and wield strange alloys unknown to man, because they cannot bear the touch of iron. They also don’t shy away from familial banging and other sexual depravity (so far as I remember Tolkien’s elves do some cousin kissing but not too much closer than that).

By the way, for some reason I always picture Leea as that evil elf chick from Record of Lodoss War.

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Speaking of Leea, one interesting point about Anderson’s elves is that for most of the story we’re led to believe that they are incapable of love. We do see that Leea is fond of Skafloc and jealous of Freda. It’s not until the very end of the story, though, that Anderson drops a bomb on us. Imric makes a comment about elves being unable to love, and we get an aside from Leea about him being wrong. So really she aided Skafloc and Freda out of love for him.

Skafloc and his shadow

I remember not being particularly impressed with Holger, the protagonist of Three Hearts and Three Lions. Likewise I was underwhelmed by Skafloc. At first he was too arrogant and cocksure (thinking to know better than his foster father); next too enraptured by his sister; and finally too angsty and brooding. These were perhaps all understandable and human ways of acting, but I didn’t find them super attractive in a hero we have to spend so much time with.

He did have an interesting arch, ultimately. His transformation when wielding the cursed sword was tragic (but fun), as was the way he undid himself in the end.

I honestly found Valgard to be a more engaging character much of the time. More and more often these days we get villains who are evil because of their parents or because of society; because they’re victims. I think that’s fine, but it is often lazily done. Ultimately the choice to be good or evil is just that – a choice. And that is reflected in this antagonist. Valgard is clearly conflicted about his wickedness. There are a few times when he laments his evil deeds and shows remorse. But in the end he lays the blame upon his father, Imric, and curses his life. Instead of atoning and taking responsibility for himself and his actions, he decides to say “f it” and just be evil. So I did feel sorry for the guy – he was dealt a crap hand, and even in the end when he bests Skafloc and is about to claim the evil sword, it betrays and kills him right off. Dang – at least Skafloc got to have some fun with it! Still, he was a dick and he deserves what he got.

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In conclusion

Anyway, those are the main of my thoughts on the book. I felt like the buildup was slow but worth it – the ending was tragic but satisfying. Not among my Grand List favorites, but definitely a cool story worth a read. On the classic 5-point scale, I’d give it a 4/5.

 

-Bushi

bushi

Tor bravely fights wrongthink

Scifi writer Jon Del Arroz left a comment pushing back on one of Tor’s latest pieces, in which women writers are once again incorrectly portrayed as victims of the dreaded Patriarchy.

Hat tip to Jeffro for this one.

In case you’d like to read the article, here’s an archived link. I hope you’re in the mood for a good lamentation that every hero in scifi has a penis. Except when the lead is a woman, like in Rogue One. But even then, there are far too many dongs surrounding our strong womyn!

Also, what happened to great women writers like Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, Andre Norton, etc? Younger readers today have no idea who they are. The Patriarchy strikes again!

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Stricken down in her prime by the Dick Lords.

Except for the fact that this isn’t a gender-specific problem. Many of us in the Pulp Revolution crowd / Appendix N cult have been pointing and shouting about this generation gap for some time now. What happened to Jack Vance? Do young readers today know who Poul Anderson is? Or Lord Dunsany or William Morris? Or Clark Ashton Smith? How about A. Merritt or E.E. “Doc” Smith or Gordon Dickson?

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It’s not that women are oppressed and have been memory-holed. It’s that many of the old greats have been forgotten and buried in a mudslide of new crap. I tried to point this out at Tor, but my comment doesn’t seem to have made it past the moderator. Can’t have people challenging your narrative, eh?

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

The end of the Dying Earth

Life has, so to speak, come at me fast. Hence my recent absence. Thankfully Gita has been around to pick up some of the slack.

Still, I have been able to keep reading a few pages most nights before bed, and thusly have finished with Vance’s Dying Earth stories. Although I’ve complained about Cugel in the past, I think my feelings have developed somewhat (I am loathe to say “evolved”) into a dim fondness. Cugel himself may or may not mellow and become more sympathetic as his journey progresses, but I’ve come to see that he’s not really the main draw of his own stories. Although there are some coolish characters scattered throughout the four Dying Earth books, it’s the world itself that’s on display – the magic, the artifacts, the strange lands and creatures and peoples.

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In all honesty I found the Rhialto tales a little anticlimactic as an end to the Dying Earth. The first story, “The Murthe,” was interesting if only for the concept of a magical battle of the sexes and the comical tactic of changing men into women (not to mention “ensqualm” is a fun word). I wanted to like “Fader’s Waft” more than I did. Vance’s approach – a sort of magical whodunnit – was different and entertaining, but the length and pace put me off a bit. The ending didn’t really feel like a satisfying payoff. The last story, “Morreion,” wasn’t bad. Many D&D players will no doubt be familiar with IOUN stones. Well, if you were ever wondering about the origin of such things, look no further!

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Rhialto himself struck me as a much tamer and perhaps wiser Cugel. Again, though, I felt like the characters were secondary to the environment. Still, even though I felt these to be flawed stories, I found them pleasant and enjoyable to read. Vance just seems to do it for me.

-Bushi

bushi

PC Oshinbun: Battles and pulp and glory

I’ve let things slide, and now we’ve got a mega-packed edition! Here are some noteworthy things and stuffs from the last few weeks.

My Little Pony – a great show for guys and gals!

David over at Serpent’s Den explores just what it is about My Little Pony that has attracted so many fans, including many dudes.

“That’s exactly what My Little Pony gives us; intensely feminine characters who are interesting in their own right without feeling like they’re trying to one-up us guys. The characters aren’t just self-possessed, confident, and brave, but they actually have real personalities and interests that they care about for their own sakes, rather than being preoccupied with how they are perceived or what social message they’re sending. In short, it’s a series that embraces normal human emotions about the sexes; that men and women are different, and that they generally like each other that way. It does this simply by allowing its female leads to be unapologetically feminine.”

 

Rick Stump – when it comes to gaming, getting girls to play is quite simple!

Treat them like people. He’s got some advice beyond that, of course, but that’s what it boils down to. No feminist critical theory required.

 

Growing problem with Star Wars

Yavok Merkin outlines what he sees as the growing problem with the Star Wars franchise.

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Hard and Soft

We’re not talking tacos. Jon M. at Seagull Rising compares the perceptions and accuracy of the terms “hard” and “soft” scifi. Been a lot of walk within certain circles about genre lately!

 

 

Fairplay

Jesse Lucas tells the short allegorical story of a boom town called Fairplay.

 

Master of Appendix N

Semper Initiatuvs Unum blog ran a series of polls, pitting Appendix N authors against one another to see who would rise to the top of the heap. The winner may not surprise you, but the individual match-up posts themselves provide some great reading in the form of literary highlights.

 

Looking at Leiber

Dan at QuQu Media reviews Fritz Leiber’s Swords & Deviltry. I also do so. But I’m more grouchy about it.

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Gita Bushi throws some SFF bombs

Not intentionally. But he hates all that is good, obviously.

A discussion of genre and taste (Part 1)

Gita’s beef with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Howard (Part 2)

Gita talks about what he does like (Part 3)

 

The Dune Wars

I have to say, I was slightly triggered by this guest post over at Castalia House, where Rick Stump’s son Alex tears into Dune. It’s one of my favorite books of any genre. But while I gathered my thoughts, a skirmish played out. And you know what? I’m good. Don’t need to touch this one right now.

Dune is the most overrated novel of the 20th century! (Castalia)

No it isn’t! (Injustice Gamer)

Your response sucks (Rick Stump)

No it doesn’t (Injustice Gamer)

Yes it does (Rick Stump)

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Castalia!

It’s hard to keep up with everything now; even with the Castalia House blog!

Daddy Warpig has a great post looking at He-Man and its pulp story ideas.

Jeffro’s done at least a couple Sensor Sweeps since I last checked in here. One and two.

 

A Tale

Oghma’s written a (horror?) story on his blog. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but it’s intense. So I recommend checking it out, but be prepared!

 

More Appendix N

Into the Night blog is following in the steps of Jeffro and others in tackling Appendix N as a reading list. He’s written brief impressions of several books so far, including the Dying Earth.

 

Hellboy, hell yeah!

So much Castalia content! HP of Every Day Should Be Tuesday takes a look at the pulp roots of Big Red.

Hellboy is totally pulp.  And not just because it has a tentacled space monster.  Mike Mignola, the writer-artist of the original comic, points to Lovecraft, but he also points to Robert E. Howard.  And not just to Conan but to Solomon Kane.  And not just to Howard but to Manly Wade Wellman.  Now you have my attention.”

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Eh Fist

I’ve been watching Iron First on Netflix and voiced more than a couple complaints on Twitter. I’m not the first to vocalize my disappointment in this weaksauce C-lister. Jeffro Johnson recorded his thoughts about each episode on Google+ and Rawle Nyanzi’s compiled them for us.

 

Mass Effect Andromeda-ha-ha!

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I generally don’t wish anyone ill, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate when stupid crap fails. I was a big fan of the Mass Effect series. Red flags started to pop up when I read of SJW developers bashing white people on Twitter and not losing their jobs. Andromeda looks to be a big disappointment, and I’m glad to see some prominent voices calling it what it is instead of propping it up.

 

Fantasy indoctrination

Over at Goblin Stomper:

“A short time ago I was asked a rather intriguing and difficult question.  “If you had to pick three books that paint a picture of the Fantasy Genre for someone, which would they be?”  It was asked in the context of gaming/role-playing, and what books might best introduce a potential FRPG gamer with no experience with any facet of fantasy.”

Definitely some interesting picks! I read several of the Guardians of the Flame books when I was younger, so it was kind of a blast from the past to see the series named here. Very different selections that I’d make, most likely, but a cool thought experiment.

 

JimFear138 and Jon M.

JimFear138 hosts fellow audiobook narrator and author Jon M on his show! I haven’t had a chance to listen to this yet, but both of these guys have been colorful and fun members of the Pulp Revolution crowd. Looking forward to this.

 

Gygax on modern SFF: Meh

A cool post over at the Frisky Pagan digs into D&D creator Gary Gygax’s reactions to post-Appendix N scifi/fantasy and its influence upon the game.

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-Bushi

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Swords and Stuff, a second crack at Leiber: Strike Two!

It’s been a while since I’ve gushed here about pulp. Hopefully I’ll have something for ya’ll soon – Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core is making its way through the pipes.

In the meantime, I don’t want to lose track of what I’ve been up to. You know, for posterity.

Fritz Leiber is one of the older sword and sorcery guys who gets a lot of positive buzz from some of the old hands. I guess that makes sense – he certainly had a visible impact on the development of Dungeons and Dragons. Appendix N don’t lie! Still, I wasn’t impressed with my first reading of his stuff. Gather, Darkness! had some cool ideas, plus an exclamation point in its title! But it was just too bogged down with ideology that got in the way of telling a good story or building interesting characters. I guess I should have started with some Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, right? His signature adventuring duo! Well…

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I nibbled on Swords & Deviltry for a while. Many train rides: reading a few pages, falling asleep for the remainder of the trip, and repeating. And then I finally finished it.

First off, let me plug another review of the same collection. Dan over at QuQu Media got his up before me, and it’s a bit kinder. Go check it out!

As for my own thoughts…

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I’ll try not to rant for too long. I actually largely agree with Dan, only I take a somewhat dimmer view. The pacing was poor, yes. I would say both Fafhrd and Mouser’s individual stories were only all right. The latter was a bit more engaging for me, as well, but I found Ivrian irksome and weak (perhaps that was the point). And when she finally gets interesting…the story ends. Then in the last tale, she mostly reverts back to the annoying weakling.

The last story, “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” is the best of the three. I’d still only call it “not bad.” Leiber was a strong writer, and he wielded words well! I did admire that strength while reading, despite being somewhat unimpressed with the story itself.

I’ll say this – Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are synergistic. They’re much more fun to read about when they’re together. They’re like the Friends of sword and sorcery (how’s that for a generational reference?). Their fight scenes are fun, and they have some chuckle-worthy banter.

Unfortunately, this tale reads like the prequel that it is. The two become best friends pretty much immediately. Because, you know. They’re supposed to be best friends.

*SPOILER ALERT*…..

 

Also, both of the womenfolk are dead weight. You know the two protagonists most likely aren’t going to willingly leave their lady loves (which is all right because frankly one is naggy and half-crazy and the other is feckless). So you know Leiber’s gotta get them out of the picture somehow. He goes give them a pretty memorable death – I give him credit for that. Don’t see too many people strangled by magic smoke and then eaten by rats.

 

 

*END SPOILER*

“Ill Met” is fun enough. There are elements that some may find overdone or silly (there’s just something about a hero drinking like 10 jugs of booze and still being functional enough to fight that always bothers me), but overall it’s enjoyable. By today’s standards, it’s worth a read. But for me now, compared to the other stuff I’ve been reading (Vance, Burroughs, Howard, CAS, Zelazny)…meh.

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Alex of Cirsova has been telling people that they should start with Swords Against Death, which was written earlier than the chronologically preceding Swords & Deviltry. This is probably sound advice. Seeing as I already own it, I’ll give it a shot sometime and see if I can join my pulp fan friends in Leiber Land, or if maybe he just doesn’t do it for me.

Bonus thought: the sorcerer’s familiar in “Ill Met” bears a strong resemblance to those in Gather, Darkness! Perhaps not surprising, but interesting to note.

-Bushi

bushi

Bushi, Gita, and friends on genre, the pulps, and taste

So many ideas backing up in the pipeline, but things are super busy at work and home right now. Leisure time is at a premium, and if I don’t leise, I run out of material. So.

At any rate, Gita (Nathan Alexander on Twitter) and I, and some others, had a nice exchange earlier that I wanted to share here. I beg your pardon in regards to formatting; tweet threads aren’t always the easiest things to embed, and we’ve got multiple strands branching off. Some comments may have been lost to the ether here, and some may appear more than once. Also it’s going to look like on long block of tweets. Fun.

The start of the chain:

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-Bushi

bushi

3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas

Not too long ago I expressed my ambivalence regarding Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever stories. The guy is a heel, and as such he’s not always fun to follow for me. Still, the tales are demonstrative of Vance’s cleverness, if not always that of their titular protagonist.

I already suggested this, but it’s worth expanding upon: for those DMs and GMs and writers out there, much can be gleaned!

There are indeed ransomware-inspiring ratmen to be found in Vance’s Dying Earth, as well as an enchanted, slumbering giant ever-ready to destroy the town at its feet should the villagers slacken their vigilance. Those are but two examples. Here are three more you might want to filch for your game or else draw inspiration from in some form or other:

1. Gems are boring

Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, zzzzzzzzzzz. It’s fun to loot precious stones from baddies, that’s true. But when your players are just picking’em up and basically auto-selling them in the first city they come to, eventually the jewels cease to sparkle.

Why not spice things up, then? At one point, Cugel briefly joins the employ of a small company that sends divers into a slime pit to retrieve the scales of a godly denizen of the Overworld. These scales, depending on the body region they originated from and their condition, are worth hefty sums to a wizard who is buying them up as artifacts. You may not need the weird slime-diving or vague origin story of said scales. They don’t even need to be scales (though they can be fun as they may be shiny and colorful and can vary greatly in value) – you may use ivory or monster bones, rare crafting materials like ironwood or mithril (which is overdone but people recognize what it is), or some other artifacts or uncommon goods.

 

2. Do the Worm

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Another job Cugel takes up at one point is that of “worminger” for a vessel upon which he wishes to procure passage. What is a worminger? Well, this ship is carried forth by great sea worms. They must be carefully tended to and managed by wormingers, who clean them, feed them, bait them, and steer them among other things. Maybe the winds have died in your campaign world, or maybe you just want a cool boat that’s towed by worms or some other giant aquatic creatures.

 

3. Geas some palms

One popular way to coerce players or NPCs into undertaking quests or tasks they normally wouldn’t is by means of a geas. This is basically a high level charm spell that forces the target to do or not do something.

But how about spicing that up a little bit and building a little character or adding some roleplaying options (besides a boring wisdom saving throw) into the equation?

In Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel is burdened with an alien parasite named Firx. Basically, Firx’s job is to make sure Cugel does the job he was sent out to do. There are times when the creature suspects Cugel is shirking his assignment or dawdling. When this happens, the little beast flexes its barbs, which are wrapped around Cugel’s guts. At these times, the protagonist either has to give in to Firx’s wishes in order to stop the pain, or else convince it that he’s pursuing the best (or only) course of action available.

And so I’ve come to find this – that even if you don’t like Cugel and don’t particularly find his stories fun, there’s still a lot to draw from them and a lot of good ideas and quality storytelling to appreciate.

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-Bushi

bushi