Conan, Cugel, karma and Leiber

I’ve been making my way through Swords Against Death, the second collection of Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. First off, let me say for the record that I heartily subscribe to Cirsova’s Rule that starting with Swords And Deviltry, the “first collection” of stories, is unwise. Indeed I’d be hard-pressed to think of a situation in which reading by publication order would be a bad idea.

Second, after reading a couple of the “good” stories, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are kinda cool. Or at least entertaining.

Third, I don’t foresee them ever taking a place among my favorite SFF characters. It’s not that they’re overly tropey (even if it sometimes grates, gotta forgive that when reading older tales, for it was fresher back then!). It’s not even that they’re morally gray, for look at characters like Howard’s Conan or Vance’s Cugel. I think it’s more that they’re cads who are cast as the good guys.

Let me rap on that a little bit.

Conan the Cimmerian is a badass dude. He’s also a noble savage, after a fashion. But he’s not really a hero in the sense of being a good guy. He’s a thief, a mercenary, and a pirate. And at times he is a murderer. I’ve seen this one debated, but the opening of the “Tower of the Elephant” is pretty clear-cut to me: a dude insults Conan, Conan gets pissed and lops the guy’s head off.

But we love Conan anyway. Why?

It’s not hard to imagine that Conan may have robbed and pillaged from innocent people. But during the time we spend with him, we don’t see that. Mostly we see him thieving from people who deserve it; fighting monsters; killing men who are bad, or at least worse than him. Often he’ll save a pretty wench, and he never forces himself upon her. As a leader he thinks of his men, and as a ruler he has compassion for his people. We like Conan because not only is he a tough-as-nails man’s man, but he generally winds up doing the right thing. When he does play the rogue, it’s largely targeting people who deserve it.

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Cugel the Clever is not a badass dude. He’s a a charlatan and a scoundrel. I must admit I disliked him throughout a large segment of my Dying Earth reading. But he grew on me as two things happened: one, I tempered my expectations, and two, I recognized the karmatic element to his adventures. First we have to recognize that Cugel is not a hero. He’s not marketed as one, and though he thinks very highly of himself, he doesn’t claim to be one unless it’s material to one of his scams. Second, when Cugel targets the innocent or victimizes the good, he usually pays for it in some way. These misadventures can be fun, but my favorite tales are the ones where Cugel winds up pitted against villains worse than him. In these cases, he is often the initial victim and he plays a part in delivering a sort of justice. He may wind up demolishing a ratmen lair or conning a niggardly merchant out of some valuable wares, and “yay” because they deserved it. It’s possible to appreciate Cugel when you accept that he’s a cur and learn to enjoy both his failures and successes.

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That brings me to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I think what bothers me about them is the fact that Leiber almost suggests that they’re heroes. And to be fair, their battles with the Thieve’s Guild can be fun. But despite being the Best Swordsmen in the Universe (TM) and master thieves, and later also bards and magicians, they aren’t good guys. One story offhandedly mentions that they like to rob merchants on the road (so they’re highwaymen). Fafhrd’s origin story renders him almost completely unlikable in my eyes – the fact that he abandons his pregnant girlfriend because he’s got the hots for a traveling dancer.

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It’s certainly plausible that Conan’s got a bunch of bastards floating around. And maybe if he were in Fafhrd’s situation he would have done the same thing and abandoned his woman rather than be pinned down at home. After all, Conan is driven by wanderlust and a thirst for adventure. But we’re not told that Conan did any of this, and I think that’s important to maintaining his image as an almost-hero.

You may be able to say that justice is visited upon the pair. After all, even if they always survive, they don’t always win. Their plans go awry, they lose the treasure, they get beaten up. But it’s never really presented in the “ha-ha you got what you deserved” kind of way we see when Cugel gets his comeuppance. That’s because Fafhrd and Mouser are supposed to be likable and Cugel isn’t.

For now I’m just trying to enjoy the stories of Fafhrd and Mouser for what they are – the fun exploits of two rogues who get into trouble and do some cool stuff. But when I think about who they are as characters and what Leiber built them into, I’m just not impressed.

-Bushi

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Vance and Norton and writing diversely

Over the weekend I dropped a piece at Castalia House comparing one aspect of Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey to a short story by Andre Norton. The long and short of it is that Norton’s use of “mind powers” was a lot more interesting and imaginative and magical than Lanier’s. Though I do give points for the Dragon Ball-esque powering up system of Hiero’s Journey, whereby psions (or at least the protagonist) must actually battle and make strenuous use of their powers in order to seriously “level up.”

Since Saturday, I had a chance to read another of Norton’s shorts, and I was surprised. My readings of Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore’s short fiction have thus far been fairly uniform. By that I mean that Brackett’s writing has generally been very action-oriented and full of dynamic characters and exotic locales. Moore’s got that poetic Howardian flair and a real talent for the blending of fantasy and horror elements (no, I haven’t gotten to her scifi yet, though I know she’s famous for Northwest Smith). So not to write them off as one-trick (both Brackett and Moore are amazing so this is probably not the case), but at least so far I’ve been savoring a steadily-maintained flavor for each.

With Norton, on the other hand, High Sorcery starts off with a very evenly-paced and increasingly exciting tale of a wizard brought somehow to a new land with mages of its own. In “Wizard’s World,” magic seems to be systematic but varied and flexible. It is a product of the mind and primarily illusory, but also quite capable of inflicting physical harm. There are orbs of fire and conjured serpents, and giant magical walls of thorn.

Her second tale, “Through the Needle’s Eye,” is much more subdued and mysterious. The protagonist is not an action-minded hero nor a wily witch, but a girl with a bum leg. One days she wanders into the garden of her neighbor – a tragic, somewhat creepy older woman who like the protagonist is lame (in the ambulatory sense). The old woman winds up being a master seamstress of sorts, and winds up taking the girl under her wing and teaching her to stitch and sew and weave. The story culminates in a startling and magical reveal about the old woman the nature of her gift, which she offers to pass on to her young protege.

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I was quite surprised by the difference in the two stories. They read like the works of two very different but both talented writers.

I’ve also gone back to Jack Vance’s Demon Prince series. I didn’t return as quickly as I’d intended, but that’s only due to an overabundance of treasure. It was only recently that I learned this, but Vance was also an author of mystery/thriller books. Armed with this new knowledge, it seems obvious. When you look at the Demon Prince books and also Rhialto the Marvellous, you’ve got SFF with generous infusions of mystery/thriller elements.

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Throughout his quest for revenge, protagonist Kirth Gersen more often plays the gumshoe than the fighting man (though he’s adept at both roles). In tracking down his quarries, he must follow leads and unwind various plots and mysteries. In the last of the Dying Earth installments, the titular magician Rhialto is occasionally thrust into a sleuth-like position, forced to fend off unjust accusations or actions taken unfairly against him. Even works like the Gray Prince demonstrate Vance’s skill and proclivity for the expanding mystery and “the big reveal.” Still, when contrasted with his earlier and perhaps most critically-acclaimed Dying Earth stories, we see a different set of mechanisms and story elements on display.

All this is to say – Vance and Norton, to my judgement, were both very skilled at writing good but disparate types of stories.

-Bushi

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An interview with Jack Vance

The other day I found an old radio interview of SFF grandmaster Jack Vance from 1976 and did a little bit of tweeting as I gave it a listen.

In case you’re unfamiliar with him, Jack Vance was listed in D&D’s Appendix N and played a singular role in inspiring the game’s magic system. Though he’s probably best known for his Dying Earth stories, which are quite impressive, Vance was a prolific writer who churned out a large amount of both SFF and mystery/thrillers. Since plunging into the world of obscurified greats, he’s become one of my favorite authors.

Learning more about him has raised my estimation of the man. Like so many other writers and creatives, he comes across as kind of an odd bird. He was certainly an interesting character, at any rate.

I’m not quite sure why Vance decided to do this interview. He was of the mind that authors shouldn’t overexpose themselves; that they should let their works stand on their own and not bring their own personalities (or perhaps politics) into potential conflict or overshadowing of their stories.

Here are some notes from this interview, in case you don’t care to listen but would like a little bit of a glimpse into Vance’s life and mind. Keep in mind this is all from the 1976 interview, so it’s possible that some of his thoughts and opinions may have changed over the years.

On writing and the industry:

– When asked what he thinks about the scifi field, Vance says he doesn’t know what to think because he doesn’t read scifi!

– When asked why he doesn’t read scifi, Vance pauses for a moment and then replies with a “no comment.”

– He later expands upon this, saying that he doesn’t know and doesn’t care where the SFF industry is going because he’s too occupied with his own work to concern himself with other people.

– Vance talks a lot about money. To me, this suggests that he may have been doing a bit of publicity work because of financial concerns.

– He seems to resent that some writers have gotten breaks (with Hollywood deals, for example) without earning their stripes.

– Asked about a deal Lin Carter had made with Hollywood to produce a Throngor movie, Vance comments that “Carter’s a hard worker” and “has paid his dues.” Despite approving, Vance can’t comment on Carter’s books because he hasn’t read them. Incidentally, the Throngor movie was later cancelled.

– A caller asks him if the Demon Princes series will continue, and Vance tells the caller that it’s all plotted out, but that financial/logistical concerns are tying his hands for the moment. This sheds a little light on the complications of working out deals with publishers.princes

– Vance muses that science fiction is not mainstream literature, just as jazz is not classical music. He later laments that both “science fiction” and “jazz” are bad names for two beautiful genres.

– On writing, he says that he wishes he was more disciplined. He starts writing in the morning and always decides that he’s going to buckle down and start doing a set number of words per day, but never does.

– On story plotting, he says sometimes he will plot out before writing. But sometimes he discovers new ideas as he is writing and the stories change.

– Vance mentions that often about 2/3 through a book he will experience writer’s block. Once he was hung up working on a 6-8k word story for about two months.

– Talking with a caller, he comments that he usually doesn’t write about societies with super advanced technology because it then becomes difficult to craft conflicts of man vs nature, because then mankind is too powerful for nature to contend with.

– On writers conveying worldviews or biases in their stories, Vance says to an extent it can’t be helped. Personally he values traditions and customs and doesn’t want to see the old ways of things disappear.

– Vance also wrote mystery books under the name “John Holbrook.” He tells the interviewer that he probably won’t be doing any more murder-mystery stories because he’s got too many scifi projects he’s working on. He also says he makes more money with scifi than mystery.

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– He comments that he’s not very pleased with his earlier works but chalks it up to learning.

On culture

– On his personal valuing of traditions, he says they add a positive complexity to the world, giving baseball vs soccer as an example. He enjoys baseball because the rules are arbitrary and that makes it interesting. Soccer, on the other hand, is very structured and straightforward and boring.

– Vance seems dismissive of Star Trek.

– On hippies and nonconformists, he comments that “nonconformists flourish when they’re economically able to.” Says “If you’re broke or if you’re a peasant, you can’t afford to be a nonconformist.” He points out that countries like China probably have very few nonconformists.

On Cugel the Clever

– It’s pronounced with a hard “c” and a hard “g” – like “Koogle”!!

– Regarding Michael Shea’s Quest for Simbilis story, he says Shea wrote to him and asked if he could do a Cugel sequel. He wanted to send Vance his story to see if he approved. Vance says he had no idea who Shea was and didn’t want to read his story, but he told him “Sure, go ahead. If it’s good enough to publish, good on you.” He told Shea to do anything he wanted except for killing off Cugel.

On Vance himself

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– Asked about his fears, Vance says that he is claustrophobic.

– On travel, he says “I’m tormented by wanderlust when I’m home and I’m homesick when I’m away. So I can’t win.”

– Vance mentions at one point that he has many projects going on, not just writing.

On John Campbell, Martin Gardener, Isaac Asimov

– Vance is asked about John Campbell, who was an influential scifi editor often credited with shaping the “Golden Age” of science fiction. Vance says that he didn’t know Campbell very well though they only lived a few blocks apart!

– He says Campbell used to host poker games, but Vance was never a big fan of playing poker.

– Asked about other writers, he says “Some of my best friends are writers. I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one, but.”

– Vance says he isn’t interested in writers’ circles or conventions. He finds them artificial and boring.

– He says when he was young he thought he might want to be a mathematician. Asked about mathematician and writer Martin Gardener – “I don’t like him personally.” And “I think he’s smug.”

– He says that Gardener is closed-minded. “Campbell was an open-minded man. Gardener has a closed mind.” […] “Although Gardener is a much more valuable, clever man than Campbell.” […] “But Campbell was a much deeper man than Gardener could ever pretend to be.”

– Vance on Gardener: “It irritates me to read him.” He throws Asimov in with Gardener here. He continues to say that he can understand Gardener being the way he is, being white collar and working at a “fannish” New York magazine.

– But “Asimov oughta know better!” he says. Perhaps Asimov adopted Campbell’s dogmatism, he muses.

-Bushi

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Hiero’s Loooong Journey

It feels like I was working through this book forever, but I finally finished it. This statement, along with our title here, will probably hint as to my overall impression of the story, so let’s get the rating out of the way first again.

Hiero’s Journey: 2.5/5

Let’s add a qualifier to that, though – if you’re interested in the evolution of SFF or perhaps doing your own read-through of Appendix N, I’d bump it up a half notch to 3/5.

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Ok, let’s back up a step before we proceed. Hiero’s Journey, published in 1973, tells the story of a warrior priest in the distant, post-apocalyptic future. It’s a world that’s been ruined by “the Death” and is now peopled by scattered human societies laboring to rebuild civilization; mutant, often monstrous, animals of various shapes and sizes; and Leemutes – deformed humanoid creatures that often appear to be some sick blend of man and animal. Psionics are heavily featured, which is a cool change-up from and stand-in for magic.

Hiero, our hero, is assigned a perilous and important task by the Abbey – the theocratic unified Church that presides over matters both spiritual and scientific in what used to be Canada.

It’s a good setup and Lanier’s got plenty of cool, far-out ideas and critters to play with. Unfortunately the execution just fell flat for me. Despite packing in plenty of action, the pace felt slow. In between battles and chases, the author spends pages describing forest or swamp travel. I couldn’t help thinking that a master like Robert E Howard would never spend so many words repeatedly talking about a moose chewing cud or insects annoying the protagonist and his companions.

Another, perhaps related problem I had was with Lanier’s failure to properly modulate the story’s tension. Literally every enemy Hiero encountered was “evil,” “malignant,” “unnatural,” and something that should not be. When you start off your story fighting Lovecraftian-level antagonists, you’ve set a pretty high bar for yourself. Near the end of the book he encountered a whole ‘nother “faction” (if you can call it that) of evil, but the concept had been diminished by that point since everything else he fought was the worst, too.

It’s also very plain that this story is a product of the 70’s. At first I was psyched that the main character was a warrior priest (a “Killman,” actually), but as things progressed it became clear that whatever Christianity had survived in Lanier’s future world wasn’t a version I identify with.

Before getting to spoilers, in summary I’d say that I really appreciated what Lanier was trying to do, and I think he put out some solid and inspirational ideas. He had trouble pulling off a great story, though.

For further reading check out Jeffro’s retrospective at Castalia House and HP’s thoughts at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.

*Spoilers*

 

To expound a little bit, I think Jeffro’s remarks about Luchare are dead-on. She starts off as a promising character. The manner in which Hiero encounters her made me think of Howard, actually, for there’s a Solomon Kane story in which the heroic puritan saves a native girl from flying beast-things, if memory serves. And yes, Howard is now my measuring stick for all SFF. But after saving Luchare and some initial awkward courting, she really serves no purpose to the story. Same with Gimp and his sailers, who are conjured up as a vehicle for some minor threads of plot that could have been reworked. When nameless sailors #5 and #6 are killed, we don’t care. They haven’t been fleshed out at all, except for some half-assed explanation about how they were so impressed by Hiero’s duel that they will now follow him anywhere without regard for life or limb.

We’re told many times that Hiero is a great leader, but he never really doesanything to convince me of it. Events kind of sweep him up. Sometimes he gets people killed but they’re just sailor NPCs so, you know. Lolz. The one time he feels bad about it, the sailors’ captain basically just tells him it’s no biggie.

The nature of Hiero’s vocation is also somewhat of a mystery for those who stop to think about it. He’s a Killman, yes – some combination of ranger and warrior (I think we’re told there’s an “assassin” component in there, but that part was never evident). But what is his function as a priest? He says a few prayers, but he never offers mass or gives blessings. Priestly celibacy is not dogmatic, so it’s easy to see how priests would once again be allowed to marry in a fallen, rebuilding society, but Hiero doesn’t marry. He is perfectly content to bang his girlfriend because, hey, they’re as good as married and he’ll get to it when their quest is done. He’s not even conflicted about it! And then Luchare dupes him into playing stud for the strange queen of the plant women, and of course he doesn’t really get pissed or see anything wrong with that. Not very clerical behavior at all.

Then there’s Brother Aldo and the Eleveners. Ugh. Aldo himself is likable enough, though throughout the whole story there’s kind of an undertone of “is he going to sell out the party and humanity to save Gaia?!” He never does, in this book, anyway. But as Jeffro pointed out, Aldo is too powerful. It’s kind of like if Obi-wan had escaped with the group off the Death Star and continued to go on Luke’s adventures. That would have overshadowed Luke’s growing Force abilities.

But the Eleveners and the Brotherhood. Ugh! Basically we’ve got two secret societies lurking in the shadows, infiltrating humanity’s budding outposts and pulling strings. The Brotherhood represents the evil physicists and hard scientists. They’re just so darn evil that they breed orcs and craft lightning guns and stuff. The Eleveners are some kind of next-level ecologist cult that has chosen to eschew technology in favor of oneness with Nature, and indeed will forsake humanity when necessary for the greater good of “Life.”

Thankfully Lanier doesn’t push and push with his Malthusian narrative, but the explanation about how Earth was thrown into chaos and death because of overpopulation, capitalism, and religious fanaticism, and scientific advancement is…well, stupid. So there was at least one big eye-roller.

Was there anything I did like? Well, I was initially partial to Klootz, Hiero’s intelligent mutant moose. But he was quickly overshadowed by Gorm the bear and was mostly relegated to chewing swamp vegetation.

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Hiero’s Journey pretty clearly had an impact on succeeding SFF. I’ve never played Gamma World, but I hear this book played a big part in inspiring that game. I’d also be surprised if there weren’t threads connecting the Fallout series to Lanier’s tale. At the very least I must give multiple props and a single kudo for that.

-Bushi

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Eric John Stark: Conan in space!

Last week I wrote a piece over at Castalia House talking about my experience thus far with Leigh Brackett. My interest in the Queen of Space Opera was initially piqued not really because of her inclusion in Appendix N, but because she apparently was involved in writing the script for The Empire Strikes Back, in addition to several other old kickasses like Rio Bravo, Rio Lobo, and El Dorado.

Clearly the woman knew how to write a romping good action story.

It took me a while to discover and appreciate her depth. Having read several of her short stories now, I can say with conviction that she’s not over-hyped by her fans in the Scientifiction scene. Her writing is not only engaging; I daresay it’s got an imaginativeness to rival that of any other pulp/Appendix N author I’ve read thus far.

And now that I’ve finished reading the first Eric John Stark book (one of Brackett’s premier recurring characters), I feel comfortable saying this – Stark is Conan in Space!

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Let me first expand upon this a little before crouching into a defensive posture to clarify that perhaps provocative assertion.

Stark is an elemental man of action. If he isn’t outright called a barbarian, he is portrayed as one. Though possessing of a keen wit and sharp, almost animal instinct, he is prone to rage and bloodlust. There’s one point in the story where Stark advances to kill an enemy who had unsuccessfully attempted to eliminate him (and in a rather underhanded way), despite knowing that the man is protected and a deathly punishment is certain. Stark doesn’t care, or rather he is beyond self-control.

He’s also both intelligent and charismatic. The whole plot of the Secret of Sinharat is spurred by a warlord’s invitation for Stark to sign on as a military trainer. Someone’s gotta turn those undisciplined hordes into Fighting Men ™!

None of this really surprises me, as I’ve read and been told that Brackett was a big fan of Rob E Howard, and I think that shows in her style. I don’t think her writing possesses the same bardic flair as Howard’s, but that’s akin to pointing out that Jason wasn’t as physically strong as Hercules.

Now I want to make a point of saying that I make this Conan comparison in the best way possible. You see, there’s a lot of Conan pastiche out there. A LOT. And plenty of it is sloppy, uninspired, and/or lacking in execution. Eric John Stark is none of those things. Just from the first Stark tale, I can tell he’s different enough from Conan to be his own, unshadowed character. Plus he’s black!

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Of course being that I haven’t read Tarzan yet, maybe I’m all wrong about this and Stark is actually Tarzan in space!

 

Addendum: H.P. and I finally come to almost the exact same conclusion on something!

-Bushi

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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