Back in 1954, Poul Anderson released his novel The Broken Sword. Not many have heard of it because a little book came out that year took all the spotlight… Some book called The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
And I admit, I didn’t know about The Broken Sword until a year ago. (Was slightly embarrassed, especially since I’d enjoyed a well-worn copy of the Poul Anderson short story collection The Armies of Elfland in my youth. And I’ve been aware of Anderson’s popular novel Three Hearts and Three Lions, of which I still need to read.) I found out about it after reading an excerpt of Richard K. Morgan’s novel The Steel Remains that included a quote from Sword:
‘I think you look on death as your friend,’ she murmured. ‘It is a strange friend for a young man to have.’ ‘The only faithful friend in all the world,’ he said bitterly. ‘Death is the only one sure to be at your side.’
I was immediately intrigued, and after reading the synopsis, reading the excerpt, I thought I’d have a go. Though before I go on, this book isn’t as kid friendly as LOTR. Sure LOTR isn’t “children’s literature”, but unlike that Hobbit tale, Sword takes a grittier tone.
That’s to be expected, especially since our protagonist’s father Orm the Strong (No relation to the character King Orm from Aquaman.) is a Viking: and savage he is, raiding the coasts and surrounding lands… Unknown to Orm, one family he decides to slay is the family of a witch. The witch escapes, and puts a curse on Orm that would take his firstborn son away from the world of men.
Before Orm’s child Skafloc is christened, he’s kidnapped by the Elf Earl Imric, and replaced with a troll made to look exactly like Skafloc. Thus, Imric raises the boy…And I won’t spoil the rest.
The characters are what truly makes this Fantasy standout, at least in 1954. The characters do good things, and yet at the same time they’re just as capable of bad deeds as well. The elves are just as bad as the trolls at times, and the trolls are just as heroic in certain scenes. Nowadays, you can find shelves of books with characters like this, but it’s nice to read a book before that was mainstream Fantasy. Best part about Anderson is that he didn’t try to emulate Tolkien’s opus—he did his own thing.
Looking at the setting, I have to say I’ve never seen anything like it. Being a story about
Vikings, Elves and Trolls, one would assume the book would only be based on Norse myth and legend. He also included Celtic, Greek, Irish, and Asian myth just to name a few. I’ve read books where authors attempt to stuff everything from everywhere in a novel and seeing them fail miserably in making their tale into a coherent narrative. Anderson makes it work, and makes it look effortless. (I’ll be studying this book for years to come from a writer’s perspective.)
The plot fires off at a steady clip. It may be a sixty five year old book, it still had plenty of twists I didn’t see coming, except for a few scenes—and unfortunately the ending. The ending feels like one I’ve read far too many times in other books, and in particular the Epic Fantasy subgenre. Is it a horrible ending? Not really. Just a little bit anticlimactic.
Overall, I give the book 4 stars.
Anderson was a writer decades ahead of his time. The Broken Sword should appeal to fans of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion novels, Viking sagas, and Lord of the Rings. (GoT fans as well, and fans of Dungeons & Dragon novels.)