Last Saturday, I riffed off of a post on the Tor Publishing website, and I am going back to that well for tonight's post. One of today's posts celebrated the birthday of SFF author Poul Anderson, an author I have only mentioned in passing in a couple of posts. Anderson wrote a wide variety of science fiction and fantasy works, ranging from Space Opera to Grim Norse Saga. He was also an early member of The Society for Creative Anachronism, and wrote a humorous essay, 'On Thud and Blunder' as cautionary advice to writers approaching All Things Medieval in a slipshod fashion.
My personal favorite novel by Anderson is 1954's The Broken Sword, published the same year as another notable 'elfy' book. The Broken Sword is the progenitor of 'grimdark' fantasy, a violent tale of a doomed protagonist bearing a cursed sword on a campaign of vengeance. Set in a Faerie-haunted Dark Ages Europe which is rapidly coming under the sway of a new god whose name the supernatural denizens cannot bear, the novel concerns a war between the two major powers of Faerie, the elfs and the trolls. The hero, Skafloc, is a human fosterling of an English elfin noble who kidnapped him to further his martial aims- humans can bear iron weapons and Christian exorcisms. The principal antagonist is Valgard, the half-troll/half-elf changeling (engendered in an evil fashion by the amoral elf lord) left in Skafloc's place, who grows up to be his soulless mirror-image. The two virtually identical beings, manipulated by fate, eventually meet in a 'you die, she dies, everybody dies' plot worthy of an Icelandic saga.
The book is refreshingly short compared to the interminable door-stop series that plague the Fantasy Industrial Complex. Anderson throws out paragraphs of exposition which, in and of themselves, put to shame most modern 'brick of paper' post-D&D fantasy 'epics'. This bit alone could form the basis of a twelve volume 'WAR OF GODS AND ELVES' series:
"The hardest fight was on a desert shore with a troop of exiled gods, grown thin and shrunken and mad in their loneliness but still wielding fearsome powers. Three elf ships were burned after the fight, there being none left to man them, but Imric was the victor."
While the book deals with horrific crimes (the elfs it portrays are a far cry from Tolkien's superhuman good-guys), it doesn't revel in depravity- the transgressive passages are short and matter-of-fact, the sort of laconic passages one would find in a Norse saga or the newspaper police blotter. The hero is likeable and capable, but his descent into a doom-laden destiny prevents him from being a mere 'male wish-fulfillment' figure. The villain is thoroughly despicable, though his helplessness due to his soulless nature (and his realization that he is a 'counterfeit' of another being) lends him an air of pathos.
The Broken Sword is a quick read, the plot is a thriller, the action portrayed with gusto. As I mentioned before, it throws out more ideas, more eldritch imagery, than most multi-volume series by lesser authors. If you were intrigued by the gray morality of the television series Game of Thrones, you should read the book, it delivers the same punch with much more economy. While I love The Lord of the Rings, I think it had, overall, a deleterious effect on the genre, with the 'gotta write a trilogy' model taking place of the one-and-done model.