And now scott_lynch is posting some thoroughly hysterical and thoughtful writeups of classic genre works, and well, my resolve is weakening.
Never let it be said that I fail peer pressure. So yeah, it's time to go back to the book reports.
Today, a little swords-and-sorcery: Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword and Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian, which is a collection of assorted Conan stories re-released in anticipation of the forthcoming movie.
The thing that impresses me most about The Broken Sword is Anderson's craft and command of his period. I mean, on one level, it's a perfectly nice little saga-for-the-modern-audience in which three heroically sketched characters deal with doom, faerie, changelings, and psycopathy in the turn-of-the-Christian-era Danelaw. And on another, it's reasonably rigorous historical fantasy, including a hell of a lot of very impressive stunt writing.
As you know, Bob, I have something of an interest in pagan and medieval Norse stuff, and I think Anderson hits those notes just right. I was also extremely impressed by Anderson's ability, at book length, to adhere as strongly to Germanic- and Norse-derived English vocabulary as he does. This is not really a shock from the fine mind that brought us "Uncleftish Beholding," but it did make me nerd out a hell of a lot. Especially since I initially planned to do something like that in Mingan's POVs in the Edda of Burdens, and eventually abandoned it as beyond my skill. (I'm currently trying it again with a short story. Maybe I have improved.)
Michael Moorcock considers the 1954 version of The Broken Sword to be superior to Tolkien's magnum opus. I have to admit, I think Anderson gets the rhythm of Norse poetry right--and integrates his poeticizings more evenly into the narrative. Is The Broken Sword better than The Lord of the Rings? Probably not--it's a slighter work, thematically, at least to my reading.
But it's still a hell of a novel, and it does some things still rare in fantasy: there's a whole world in here, or at least allusions to it, even if we're largely cramped into one corner of it for the duration of the narrative. There are no clear villains and the heroes are even less one-dimensional. There is best and worst in everyone: in some ways, it's almost as if the influence of this book skipped forward well into the 1960s and early 70s, to the emergence of the fantasy antihero. (First Elric story, published 1961, for the record.) A lot of modern fantasy's critique of Tolkien grows out of this book--which is pre-Tolkien fantasy by any measure, and which exists in such a fascinating tension with Tolkien--as the inspirations are much the same.
Anderson's Faerie is a brutal and chill place, far more pragmatic than Tolkien's. Though they draw on the same myth and legend cycles, Anderson hews more closely to them. His elves are, yes, tall and fair... but without even the compassion and engagement that mark Tolkien's.
His narrative concerns itself with the doom (Wyrd) of Scafloc, a young man stolen away to Faerie, whose fate is being manipulated by the Aesir--and equally with his twin, Valgard, the changeling left in his place, who grows up to be what in modern terms we'd call a perfectly identifiable sociopath and sadist. This is the era when Christianity and the old gods have struck an uneasy truce, and rarely have a read a novel so firmly grounded in the ethos of the era--this feels historically solid, up to and including the motivations of the characters.
Both men become involved in a war between the Trolls and the Elves, manipulated by a witch who wishes revenge upon their father. The Alfar are cruel; the Trolls are crueller; the humans are caught between.
I'm kind of wowed by Anderson's female characters--especially given that this book was published in 1954 (the same year The Fellowship of the Ring was published, for those of you playing the home game). I did read the 1971 revised text, but as I understand it, Anderson mostly cleaned up the prose and added a bunch of exposition rather than altering the narrative. The Broken Sword offers several strong female characters, three of whom are absolutely central to the plot. One is a villain; two are heroines. Neither is without flaws, and in the end, the entire outcome of the plot rests as much on their shoulders as on those of the male protagonist and antagonist.
That was... fucking refreshing, frankly. I've read an awful lot of modern-day fantasy that didn't do as well by women.
Also, did I mention that Anderson could write? There are sentences in this book that I am stealing and setting in my own word-hoard, for later use. Some direct, vivid, beautifully figurative language. I was stopped dead in the middle of one page by a sentence something like "A grin split his beard." Sharply visual and sharply observed, Mr. Anderson!
The book does deal frankly with sexual violence, sexual coercion, sexual manipulation (of men by women as much as the other way around), and a threatened rape-by-trolls of Freda--the chief female protagonist--is a major plot device. I'm reasonably okay with that, given the milieu. It'd be a little disingenuous, in this setting, to avoid it entirely. I'm less okay with Anderson's magical fixing of Freda's post-traumatic stress disorder so as not to bog down the plot with her damage... but then, I would be. And at least he acknowledges that she should be damaged.
The Broken Sword also features an incest subplot that even I found a little racy.
At Black Gate, a thorough if nonexhaustive comparison of the two versions.
And on to Conan! I read this on airplanes, to and from San Diego.
"Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet."
I am so very fond of that sentence. And it's one of Howard's best: read it out loud, portentously, for best effect.
The Conan of Howard's short stories and novellas is not very like the Conan of the comic books and movies. He's quite smart, for one thing, with a fairly strong vocabulary and a sly sense of humor. One thing I noticed in reading this collection, which reprints six of the Weird Tales Conan stories from 1932-1936, is that Conan is as likely to outsmart his enemies as out-thew them.
The TOC includes:
"The Phoenix on the Sword" (1932)
"The People of the Black Circle" (1934)
"The Tower of the Elephant" (1933)
"Queen of the Black Coast" (1934)
"Red Nails" (1936)
"Rogues in the House" (1934)
These remain fun, fast-paced, vaguely ridiculous, and entirely devoid of character growth or thematic argument. Also, damn but Howard's sorcerers are not game-balanced. It's a good thing Conan is a 17th-level fighter and has one hell of a DV against spellcasting, or he wouldn't have made it off of page 6.
The racial and sexual politics here, alas, do not hold up as well as Anderson's.
In the earlier stories, Conan is described as "dark" of complexion, albeit with blue eyes: I came away with a mental picture of somebody colored very much like the famous National Geographic photo of an Afghani woman with brilliant hazel eyes. But by 1936, Howard is going out of his way to make the reader certain that Conan is a white guy, and what was previously mostly-obscured racism is thick and uncomfortable. In the earliest Conan stories collected here, we have a sense of a vividly multicolored and multicultural world: by "Red Nails" (1936) it's What These Treacherous Savages Need Is A Honky.
I have to give Howard points, though, in that at least early on--his Hyperborean world is a condensed microcosm of Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. Although if he used the word "dusky" to describe somebody's skin tone one more time, I was going to cry.
And then there's the women.
Bob... we gotta talk.
In Howard's defense, some of them are quite active, and two in particular--Valeria the swordswoman and Bêlit the pirate queen--are apparently sincere attempts to portray awesome warrior chicks. His women do not lack for bravery, either--a notable example is the Devi Yasmina, who saves Conan's bacon more than once in "The People of the Black Circle," and who gets the better of him in the end.
But it seems as if Howard can't actually make himself believe that these women are competent, because at plot-relevant moments they suffer from Wonder Woman syndrome, and become suddenly useless while somebody whose ass they should have kicked ties them up and carries them off. Every single female character in this book spends at least part of her time slung over somebody's shoulder (usually, but not always, Conan's), stripped to her skivvies and held down on an altar, or (and this would be the pirate queen!) performing a strip-tease for Conan on the deck of her ship. In full view of her sailors.
...Yeah, I pictured Grace O'Malley, too. And then my brain broke, and she executed every last mother's son of 'em.
Even Valeria, a swordswoman supposed to be Conan's equal in all but strength, winds up overpowered by an !Aztec avatar of Erzebet Bathory and flopping out of her clothes.
Howard's actual writing, on a sentence level, is an interesting tension of brilliance and naivete. The thing is, he's a really strong writer, in the purple pulp tradition of the 1930s. That sentence I quoted at the top of this section is vivid, concrete, and has a wonderful sonorousness to it. The problem is, I think, that nobody ever warned Howard about second-order cliches (repeated catchphrases: he has a thing for people standing with their legs wide-braced... and the thews are a joke all their own... and there's Conan, suspicious as a wolf yet again. It's a good image... the first time.) and even more sincerely about adverbs. There's a guy who "knelt supinely" (I don't even know how you do that!) and there's a thing that falls shatteringly to a floor and then spreads scatteringly over it.
He doesn't have Anderson's control of his prosody. We'll leave it at that.
(Apparently the earlier edition of The Broken Sword was far far more purple, FWIW. Styles do change. But "supinely" was never okay.)
And there is my contribution to actual discourse on the Internets today.