Short review: This book rocks.
Poul Anderson is one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy writers. I am much more into the fantasy side of things. The first book of his that I read was The high crusade (which blurs the line a little by featuring space-faring medieval knights). That book was fairly light but entertaining. Then I read The broken sword which is as dark and brutal as any authentic saga, with a heavy dose of fantasy, and which presents what I still think would be an awesome setting for gaming, combining elements of Viking, Celtic, and medieval mythology and folklore into a mostly coherent world. (The fact that Anderson always manages to make all of his characters sympathetic — even his villains — goes a long way too.) Since then I’ve read some of his other fantasies (War of the gods, Three hearts and three lions, The armies of elfland), a bit of his short stories and some science ficiton but I’d been hunting forHrolf Kraki’s saga for quite a while.
I can’t understand why this has been out of print for so long, but I finally found a copy of the Ace paperback at a booksale a couple of months ago and ripped through it earlier this month.
Anderson’s goal was to ‘recover’ this saga, which exists in partial and sometimes contradictory pieces spread among poetry fragments, chronicles, and other sagas. He also worked in historical and legendary events from the period in which the saga would have occured (the main characters are probably based on real historical people, as is the case with most if not all sagas). Anderson works in related story lines, and related legends, so that Beowulf, among others, figure into the story as well.
He uses the framing device of having the sagas related by a heathen storytelling in a medieval times, which allows him to add some explanations of things like Viking customs and architecture, but I did not find these inclusions distracting or pedantic. (I have read, though, on Wikipedia in an unreferenced note that “some” have criticized the book for giving explanations about characters’ feelings and motivations. Maybe Anderson engages in this more than an authentic saga might but have read a good number of Icelandic sagas in translation I did not find this to be all that noticeable; in fact I thought he was very restrained by any modern standard.)
Anyway what we get is the story of many generations of characters who are all fairly realistically drawn. Magic and monsters are featured, in about the proportion you might find in the more ‘romantic’ sagas like Grettr the Strong. There are several pitched battles, described in vague but rousing terms. There are a number of duels and single combats. But much of the action takes place in conversations and intrigue, so that this should appeal equally to fans of sword & sorcery and fans of modern fantasy.
It certainly makes me want to read more real sagas, and Anderson’s three-novel series The last viking (about Harald Hardrada), as well as re-read The broken sword. And then to run a Viking campaign, probably with ‘winter phases’ like Pendragon and mass battles and generations of characters.