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

PC Koshinbun – Anime, Appendix N, and Strong Women

Cirsova reviews Cute Knight

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Cute Knight, for PC, looks to be a quirky anime-style RPG with a number of tried and proven mechanics (e.g. dating sim style stat and money balancing activities). Alex shares his thoughts after three play-throughs, and though this particular one won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it does sound worth a look.

Getting to know the Man(ly)

In what looks to be a multi-part series, Oghma tells of how he became acquainted with the works of  Manly Wade Wellman – a great blend of personal anecdote and appreciation for another great writer we’d do well to check out. “Silver John” – what a cool-sounding character!

Sizzling hot princess, beef

In honor of Women’s Day, Jon M. decided to highlight one of SFF’s most underappreciated (and hottest) strong women – Dejah Thoris. *Trigger warning: this post contains a delicious steak sandwich recipe. You may not want to read if you’re hungry and have no steak on hand.

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Get a’writing (via Seagull Rising)!

Indie publishing seems to have really taken off, especially among the Pulp Revolution crowd. But outlets like Cirsova can only fit so much. What’s an aspiring short fiction writer to do? Well, there are other outlets out there. Jon shared one recently – StoryHack Action & Adventure is currently accepting submissions, and it’s worth checking out if you’ve got something you can send in by April 1st!

(Japanese) picture of a good “strong female” character

Over at SupervisiveSF, Anthony looks at Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky and concludes that Sheeta is a much more attractive and effective strong female character than many in contemporary storytelling. As he points out, a well-done woman character can be brave, competent, and feminine. Humility is an attractive virtue, not a weakness, and a good woman should be complementary to a man, not overtly usurp his role or compete with him. Double thumbs up for the Rey-bashing.

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Comparing Heinlein

I must confess I haven’t read either of these books, but HP does a commendable job looking at two Young Adult SF stories – one very recent, and one over half a century old. The bottom line seems to be that while there are many imitators, it’s hard to match Heinlein at his best. Lest you think that’s all there is to HP’s review, though:

“Have Space Suit—Will Travel and Martians Abroad couldn’t be more different.  The former is emphatically blue SF and the latter is emphatically pink SF.  They aren’t even in the same sub-genre.”

Princess Monomoke – BEST MOVIE EVER

I must confess I was a little skeptical at first; I’m a fan of Princess Mononoke, but it might not even be in my top 10 animated film picks. Still, Malcolm makes a great argument for the depth and supervisiveness that many viewers may miss. Game of Thrones grayness but hopeful instead of nihilistic? That’s actually some pretty potent stuff.

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Some…different…monsters

There’s a great post over at Tribality with twenty ghosts and spirits from various cultures that don’t get much play (literally). Some time ago Jeffro noted an observation by game designer James Raggi:  “Because monsters should be unnatural and hopefully a little terrifying, using stock examples goes against the purpose of using monsters to begin with.”

So why not spice up your game with some more obscure or unique demons and specters? Of course we’re most likely all familiar with the banshee, but personally I had never heard of most of these.

Potentially great inspiration for writers, too!

Getting fired up by Anderson

Poul Anderson is another awesome old SFF writer that I had never heard of before diving into the pulp scene. It’s great to see him getting some play! Jon Del Arroz recently read Fire Time, and shares his impressions.

Castalia House sweeps the scene

It’s hard to cover everything, so I don’t even try! Be sure to check out Jeffro’s latest sensor sweep over at the Castalia House blog for some more noteworthy articles. There may be one or two overlaps, so feel free to read those particular posts twice!

The Kaiju

Also if you’ve been following Kaiju’s sword and sorcery tale, be sure to check out his latest installment. Plenty of action and gore in this one!

-Bushi

bushi

Dickson’s Dragon and the George

I’ve mentioned Gordon R Dickson previously and have been meaning to write up something about him. I came to one of his most popular works, the Dragon and the George, through the Rankin and Bass animation as a kid. I’ve retained a soft spot for those old cartoons, watching them again every few years, and as an adult I’ve been more proactive about seeking out their source materials.

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Though this is the only one of his stories I’ve read thus far, Dickson, like many of his contemporaries, didn’t confine his work to one genre. In this tale we’ve got somewhat genre-bending plot elements (some sort of pseudo-scientific astral projection casting characters into an alternate, fantasy version of earth), but Dickson’s other most well-known series, the Childe Cycle, has played a large and influential role in the military science fiction arena. That’s all I can really say about it for the moment, but it’s on my reading list.

I’ve lamented the fact that Dickson didn’t make it onto Appendix N or any of the other indices on the Grand List, which is why I include my own blue column. It’s difficult to generalize about an author without having read more than one entry from his body of work, but I feel good about my praise in this case. Dickson has been stylistically compared to Poul Anderson in some regards, and I can see why. Incidentally, Dickson and Anderson did some work together. I’d love to get my hands on some of that.

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Dickson’s Dragon and the George, like some of Anderson’s work, especially Three Hearts and Three Lions, blends elements of Christianity and folklore, along with bits of the author’s own imaginings.

 

It always gladdens my heart to see references to Christianity and prayer in fantasy writing; probably primarily because I’m a Christian, but also because paganism becomes tiresome after a time. Sure, tales of Odin and Ares and Crom and a thousand nameless gods can be fun and mystifying. Pantheons have their place. But these days that’s all fantasy has become – small “g” gods, demons, and grab bags of assorted stock D&D creatures, like dwarves, elves, goblins, and trolls. There’s obvious a large market for it, but it’s not the only way or even necessarily the best way to craft. That’s one big tragedy of the infamous Generation Gap.

Another similarity between Dickson’s story and some of Anderson’s work is the theme of supernaturally-driven factions at play against one another. Whereas Anderson portrays this struggle as a war between Law and Chaos, Dickson’s Dragon Knight series pits the forces of History (order) and Chance (chaos) against once another. As the two writers were collaborators and friends, and Dickson’s basis for the series, “St. Dragon and the George,” was published before Three Hearts and Three Lions, I wonder if the pair didn’t share ideas and influence one another here.

Where Anderson made his mark on nerdom with his characterization of trolls and treatment of the Paladin (among other areas, I’m sure), Dickson also employed some interesting and perhaps unique creations and spins on traditional fantastic creatures. Dickson’s dragons were not cold, unintelligent, evil reptiles, nor were they invincible, cunning, Smog-like monsters. While they were indeed avaricious treasure-hoarders, they were not uniformly bad. While Gorbash and Smrgol were somewhat forward-thinking, they were basically conservative and self-interested. Still, Dickson took dragons in a somewhat superversive, idealistic direction through Smrgol. In a late conversation with our fighting man, Sir Brian Neville Smythe, Smrgol proposed the idea of dragons and “georges” becoming friends:

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Also interestingly, while dragons were forces to be reckoned with, they were hard-pressed to contend with fully arrayed knights. Dragons had learned to respect, if not fear, a “george in his shell, with his horn.”

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Dickson also had his own take on the monstrous ogre. Deadly foes, the grand elder Smrgol was the only dragon (before Jim in Gorbash’s body) ever to have defeated one. Thus he was able to advise the protagonist on the creature’s strengths and weaknesses.

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Although they didn’t seem to gain widespread fame or popularity (if only they’d been picked up by a popular pen and paper game!), Dickson also created his own creatures. One of the high points of the related film (for me) and a constant threat throughout the book was the menace of the sandmirks – horrid, murine little monsters that would swarm and drive their victims insane before converging and devouring them.

Dickson also created a memorable and vicious foil to the sandmirks in the character of Aragh, the English Wolf. Intelligent animals can make for some interesting characters when done right.

One of the elements I appreciated most about the Dragon and the George was the balance of Dickson’s writing. Not every writer can pull off lighthearted jokes about a confused knight being envious of having a social security number and then transition to exciting battle scenes and tragic deaths that evoke the feelz.

As I read these older stories, I sit on the sidelines and scratch my head over the whole Appendix N War (perpetuated by trollish snobs, in my opinion). When I stumbled upon Jeffro’s survey of the body, and Cirsova’s scattered writings on the subject, I took it for what I think it’s meant to be – a study of one source list of the roots of modern SFF. For some people there’s a gaming aspect to it; after all, the list is literally pulled out of D&D. That’s great – take inspiration from wherever you can get it. Look at the Bible – one of the oldest and most classic collections of literature we’ve got. Countless stories, turns of phrase, and cultural references draw from the Good Book, and yet how often do we hear criticism of Bible study? “I’ve already read the New Testament, why revisit that?”

For my part, I’ve already mentioned the Generation Gap several times, and I’ve also reiterated that “old is new again.” For many readers, this is untread ground. I mean, there are a lot of us born in the 80’s and later who grew up with bookshelves full of the much-maligned “80’s and later” stuff. So what’s wrong with taking a look at, as Jeffro calls it, a time capsule of SFF from a few decades ago?

As Jon M and others have pointed out, Appendix N is a great resource for new writers interested in bringing back pulp.

For my part, Appendix N was a starting point, as I think it has been for many of these guys. It’s not a sacred, unalterable syllabus. Rather it’s a map, an atlas. Not everything contained will be to everyone’s liking, and there’s plenty of great stuff that didn’t make the list (coming back to Dickson). Appendix N is enough to last an avid reader for a while. And when you’re done, there are other paths. App N is an excellent doorway to a lot of this other stuff.

Just my two cents, and I have trouble seeing why respect for or interest in antiquity pisses some people off so much. Read what you like and let others do the same, for crying out loud.

-Bushi

bushi

Three Thoughts on Three Hearts and Three Lions

I finished up my second Anderson novel over the weekend. While I don’t think I’d rank Three Hearts and Three Lions among my favorite fantasy stories, I continue to be astounded at the state of the genre in relation to these older writings. Maybe it’s mostly due to the constant flow of new works and the pace of writers like R.A. Salvatore and Kevin J. Anderson, who seem to be putting out a new book every few months. But reading Poul Anderson and his seminal tales like Three Hearts leaves little doubt as to the towering influence he’s had not only on fantasy literature, but throughout the many spheres of nerdom. Why are we not seeing republications of this guy?

I’ve got three major thoughts I’d like to explore here. *Minor spoilers follow.*

 

1. Origin of the species

Jeffro wrote a great analysis of Three Hearts a couple years ago and the part it played in inspiring, in particular, the Paladin class, the concept of the troll, and the alignment system in D&D.

I’ve written before about the paladins and their origins, and I was pleased to see that Anderson drew upon the Matter of France in his own development of the Holger character. I feel like the Carolingian legends have never enjoyed the same degree of popularity as the Matters of Britain and Rome (the Arthurian and Ancient Greek and Roman myths, respectively), and yet there is so much to draw from the tales of Charlemagne and his knights. I must admit I was surprised to learn that “Cortana” is the name of another powerful sword forged by the legendary blacksmith Wayland (who is sometimes credited with having forged Durandal and even Excalibur). And here I had never given any thought to from whence Microsoft may have taken the name.

As for the Paladin, Jeffro notes:

Of course, a number of people are going to be reading and recommending this book because it is the literary antecedent of the paladin class from the first edition AD&D Player Handbook. Certainly, the laying on of hands, the warhorse, and the “Holy Sword” are all here.

There are a number of other fantasy traditions established or reinforced by Anderson here, but I’d like to focus for a moment on the concept of “Law vs Chaos.” Although those familiar with his works may credit Moorcock and his Eternal Champion saga for the trope, Anderson’s employment of it predates that of Moorcock. And indeed, in Elric of Melnibone‘s acknowledgement Moorcock gave a shout-out to Anderson as one of his inspirations.

Law vs Chaos has been done in different ways; sometimes it’s just a slightly more ambiguous label for Good vs Evil. Sometimes there is more nuance. But especially in the gaming scene, it’s certainly become a popular system for fleshing out alignments or dividing factions.

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The fact that Anderson and Three Hearts put so much of this subsequently widely-adopted material out there may actually be its biggest weakness in the eyes of modern readers. I’m by no means saying that the story is a let-down or unworthy of a read, but some people may perhaps be bored by what they see as yet another serving up of common fantasy tropes.

 

2. Talking the talk; walking the walk

As Rawle Nyanzi recently observed in his own first reading of Three Hearts:

Anderson also shows that he knows the old folktales on a very deep level, interweaving them into crucial plot points throughout the entire novel — it made the tale feel deep and full. It was nothing at all like the fantasy stuff I was used to, where a legendary figure’s name would be used without capturing any of that character’s substance. It did not treat European folklore as a grab-bag of powers and names to use simply because they sounded cool; I could tell that this story came from the pen of someone who truly loved these tales.

That rang true as I read through the story, as well. Although I wouldn’t describe the plot as seamless (certain parts of the story did feel a bit jerky or disjointed to me), I thought Anderson did a masterful job incorporating elements of older fantasy and fairytale, Christian mythology, and real history to color this rich yarn. I especially enjoyed the attention he put into characterizing his fey folk, and the tradition he drew upon in the process. Elf Hill, for example, was probably a Fairy Mound of the Celtic sort.

He was also up on the works of his contemporaries – in a nod to Tolkien, Anderson included mentions of wargs and Mirkwood. I also noted that there was a minor character in the book named Frodoart, and wondered whether Tolkien may have liked the name poached a part of it for LoTR (Three Hearts predated Lord of the Rings). Or maybe it was pure coincidence.

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I also credit Anderson with putting a lot of work into his characters’ dialogue. Like in the High Crusade, the people in Three Hearts speak in a way reminiscent of older times. Hugi the dwarf and Alianora the swan-may speak with Scottish accents (dwarf trope, anyone?), Holger the Dane at times uses flawed “ESL” English, and the denizens of the fantasy setting all make use of older, more archaic language. This adds a little bit to the effort required in following dialogue, but not so much as to require intensive labor on the part of the reader. I imagine Anderson must have studied quite a bit to pick up the right words and phrases for this kind of endeavor.

 

3. The old ways

We’ve already talked about Fantasy’s shift away from Christianity, and greater critics than I have analyzed the trend. In light of that movement, there’s something satisfying and almost fresh (old is new again) about fey folk who cannot stand the touch of iron and who are vulnerable to the cross and the invocation of the Lord’s name. Rather than brute force, the Middle Worlders must rely on cunning and guile. At one point the Three Hearts protagonist reflects that given their weaknesses, the fey can really only harm or ensnare those who wish to be taken. Given how many times they get the drop on him, though, I’d probably amend that theory to venture that a properly prepared Christian Man in his proper frame of mind can withstand the eldritch powers of the Middle World.

Incidentally, I noted that Anderson’s tale equated Pan with the Devil. One of the characters exposits upon the original fall of Chaos to Jesus Christ and mentions the death of Pan. Rather than a mostly harmless imp, the hircine pagan god is depicted as a much more sinister being. I only raise this point because I know it has been another topic of discussion within critical circles.

Further reading:

In addition to checking out Jeffro and Rawle’s (linked above) takes on Three Hearts and Three Lions, there’s also a worthwhile post-read analysis over at Tor.com.

 

Next:

I’ve now gotten to work on the first of Zelazny’s Amber books, and having already enjoyed one of his (mostly) fantasy tales, I’ll also be sampling one of Dickson’s scifi stories. I really should jot down some thoughts on the Dragon and the George before memory fades and a revisitation becomes necessary. We’ll see!

-Bushi

bushi

Spreading the (SFF) fever

Last weekend I met up with an old Japan-days buddy of mine, so my wife could take some belated wedding photos for him and his better half. Said friend is also a gamer of sorts – some of the video variety, and he also has a bit of D&D experience under his belt. He’s an amateur writer who I think has real talent. I’ve read some of his stuff and genuinely wanted to know how his stories would continue, which is really one of the most important elements of entertainment in my book – leave’em wanting more.

Like myself until not too long ago, he’s read and enjoyed some of the more popular SFF – Asimov and Heinlein and the like. Well over the weekend I handed him my copy of The High Crusade and babbled on and on about Anderson and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jack Vance and the injustice of their obscurity. Incidentally it’s going to be a long time before I drink more than one glass of wine again. I can’t remember the last time I suffered such a wretched futsuka.

We exchanged a couple of brief emails this week and he noted that the High Crusade was really well written and he seemed to be enjoying the period language. I find myself marveling at Anderson’s command of it again, myself, while reading through Three Hearts and Three Lions. So far as my friend goes, I hope I’ve planted a seed. An infectious, virulent, classic SFF seed.

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In related news, I finished the first Elric book this week. I found that I enjoy Moorcock’s writing but that Elric of Melnibone himself is kind of weaksauce. He’s a somewhat interesting character, but not an awesome one. What I mean is, if I were a boy pretending to be a hero, I’d much sooner be Conan or John Carter than the Pale Prince. Who wants to play as a wishy-washy sorcerer who refuses to use his sweet magic or to kill the bad guy? At least he has a cool sword, I guess.

Even if I’m not in love with Elric or Moorcock, I’m glad to have become acquainted with them. Not everything can be a masterpiece, but I’m sure plenty of this classic stuff has inspired succeeding nerdy works, and I enjoy the insight. It’s kind of like suddenly realizing you’ve been surrounded by inside jokes and fan service your whole life, and not only did you not understand them, but you didn’t even know they were there.

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Maybe the Hawkmoon books would be more my speed, but that’ll be a ways off. I’m thinking I may pick up some Amber next, to join in the Puppy of the Month club reading. And Dying Earth continues to sing to me. I can resist for only so long, for I am but a mortal geek.

-Bushi

bushi

Stocking up – collecting classic SFF

So I’ve fallen in with a shady crowd of deplorables. Not alt-righties or Trump fans, but the growing online collective of classic, pulp scifi fantasy-loving cretins. There’s something eminently satisfying about finding a stack of used Vance or ERB books, tweeting out a photo, and receiving validation. I probably need help.

I’m still getting my feet wet with this stuff; I’ve read the first three John Carter books, a couple Vance novels, and a smattering of Anderson and Offutt. I’m not going to count the likes of Lewis, Tolkien, Asimov, Heinlein, etc – too mainstream.

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Do Dunsany, Stoker, Chesterton, MacDonald, Walter Scott, and their ilk count? Classic yes; pulp, no. This is why I put together the Grand List – not all of this stuff fits neatly together. At any rate, I’m working on supplying myself (and friends and future progeny) with several years worth of related reading. It’s tough to find some of this stuff, but I’ve discovered a few great sources.

First, there’s a used bookstore in Maryland that’s got a decent-sized SFF section. I’ve only visited a couple times, but spotted some great titles both times and am now a member of their club. This probably doesn’t help most of you (if you live in the DMV area, feel free to inquire further about this place), but chances are there are some used book stores or thrift stores in your area. These can be pretty hit or miss, but every once in a while you’ll hit a jackpot.

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Second, Amazon.com is actually a decent market. Sometimes you’ll find a republication of an older work that Amazon actually stocks and handles themselves (a plus if you’re a Prime member), but there are also a fair amount of other sellers peddling their vintage wares. Some of these are ridiculously priced, but others can be had for $4 or $5 (including shipping).

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Third, and this one I am a little hesitant to share, for fear of competition snapping up the pearls I seek, is a little company called Wonder Book. Wonder Book is another Maryland-based used book business, but this one boasts a warehouse of over 4 million books. And it also offers online shopping and shipping. I’ve found some gems on Wonder Book that were either unavailable or undesirably expensive on Amazon.

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Lastly, there’s a veritable treasure trove to be found online, for free, at Project Gutenberg. They’ve got tons, including old pulp magazines. Have at it!

That’s it for now. After I finish reading some Witcher stories, I’ve got an excess of choices. I’m thinking Anderson and Moorcock, though, for it’s looking like the Witcher universe perhaps draws (maybe steals) a lot of ideas from Three Hearts and Three Lions and the Elric stories, and that sounds to me like an interesting avenue for exploration. We shall see!

(Pardon the recent period of inactivity. I’ve just been married and things have been a whirlwind of logistics, paperwork, and minor illness.)

-Bushi

bushi

 

The highest of crusades: some thoughts

Perhaps the highest of the crusades that I know. Jihad is another story. Now that I’ve finished my first Poul Anderson book, The High Crusade, I can share a few thoughts. *Some medium-mild spoilers to follow.*

First, allow me to point out that there are some other great reviews parsing different aspects of this story.

I was initially going to write a long post a little more focused on the serious societal points raised by this one, but I don’t think there’s much for me to say beyond what Jeffro highlights about “savagery” and “primitive civilizations.” If you’re coming at this from the perspective of someone who does some gaming, he also lays out a nice bit of musing about the “cleric” class and how stories like this make the case for the fighting man and the cleric as really being the most fundamental archetypes.

Jo Walton’s review at Tor.com does a great job praising the story’s narrator, who really is a wonderful element of Anderson’s writing here. Walton also makes a few astute remarks about the technology of the High Crusade.

So far as recent reviews go, H.P. over at Every Day Should Be Tuesday beat me to the punch by a few days (fancy that we should both have chosen this as among our first Appendix N subjects). H.P. does a great job describing Anderson’s skillful use of language and the centrality of Christianity to the story.

On that note, I always appreciate being taught new words. Among the gems I was able to extract from this book was “virago,” which can mean either a woman of virtuous strength and courage, or else one who is a shrew. Also “amanuensis,” which basically seems to be a scribe or personal secretary.

After having a little time to digest, the High Crusade makes me think of another literary universe and also a video game that I’ve talked about before. There are similarities to be found in the worlds of Anderson’s High Crusade and Herbert’s Dune. In both stories, we see highly advanced civilizations with futuristic technology – laserguns, force shields, interstellar travel. And yet we see no computers, as Walton points out at Tor. In Dune, this is explained by the mention of something called the Butlerian Jihad, which saw the outlaw of AI and “thinking machines.” In Anderson’s world, the closest we see is the autopilot present on the alien starships. This is probably in large part due to the time at which these stories were written. In some ways it feels weird, but it also made me think that were we to encounter alien civilizations, who knows what kinds of technologies they would have developed and what they would have skirted, for religious, societal (taboo) or whatever other reasons.

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The tone of the story also reminded me of Star Control 2 – comical yet bleak, with a style of humor that may induce chuckles without rendering the subject matter absolutely silly or breaking the tension of the plot (which is what turned me off to the Hitcher’s Guide books).The idea of human strangers thrust into a an alien world where they must quickly adapt to new technology and learn how to woo allies to defeat a common foe aligns very closely with the story setup of the beloved PC game.

Both Dune and SC2 feature large “worlds” made up on many different planets and civilizations. Herbert’s imperium has already organized into the Landsraad, a representative council of sorts, to serve as a check to the power of the emperor. Despite this representative body, the imperium operates under a feudal system (which turns out to be the formula for relative peace and balance in Anderson’s story).  I am loathe to say much about SC2, for its story is a masterpiece and the joy of it comes through discovery, but we find many different alien worlds with complex relationships and diverse species.

Given that Herbert was a contemporary of Anderson and that the Star Control 1 manual includes Anderson in its list of inspirational authors, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Dune and SC 2 had drawn upon the ideas of the High Crusade.

As I mentioned briefly, and has been pointed out by better critics than I, the High Crusade is a humorous book. This isn’t because Andesron bandies about funny jokes or absurd characters, but because of the story’s implausible and ludicrous progression of events. Yet at the same time, there is a weight to these events.

Perhaps the best example comes in the form of the Englishmen’s showdown with the alien ground forces of the colony they land upon. As part of his plan, the protagonist Sir Roger orders an artillery assault and raid upon a remote fort known to be storing arms and supplies. As the main battle ensues, many are temporarily blinded by a gigantic explosion in the distance and the rise of a billowing mushroom cloud. The narrator feels that something terrible and contrary to nature had been triggered.

Yes, the English knights used a trebuchet to lob a nuke and level an enemy alien fortress. When you say it like that, it’s funny. But the devastation subsequently described by Brother Parvus brings us back down.

With that, I once again offer praise of Anderson’s skillful rendering of Brother Parvus as narrator. He is an interesting character in and of himself; insightful, kind, and quick to learn. His compassion is evident in how he speaks of the other characters – even the villain who betrays Sir Roger.

I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that although you may be able to tell where things are going, there are some twists, and I was very satisfied with the conclusion despite expecting it to be a bitter one.

So that’s it. I’ll be reading more Anderson in future days, but for now I can wholeheartedly give this one a strong recommendation.

TL;DR – Good stuff, knights and aliens, 10/10

-Bushi

bushi