Book Review : The Broken Sword

Book Review : The Broken SwordThe Broken Sword by Poul Anderson
Published by Open Road Media on December 30th 2014
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic, Dark Fantasy
Pages: 223
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This acclaimed fantasy classic of men, elves, and gods is at once breathtakingly exciting and heartbreakingly tragic.
Published the same year as The Fellowship of the Ring, Poul Anderson’s novel The Broken Sword draws on similar Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon sources. In his greed for land and power, Orm the Strong slays the family of a Saxon witch—and for his sins, the Northman must pay with his newborn son. Stolen by elves and replaced by a changeling, Skafloc is raised to manhood unaware of his true heritage and treasured for his ability to handle the iron that the elven dare not touch. Meanwhile, the being who supplanted him as Orm’s son grows up angry and embittered by the humanity he has been denied. A pawn in a witch’s vengeance, the creature Valgard will never know love, and consumed by rage, he will commit a murderous act of unspeakable vileness.   It is their destiny to finally meet on the field of battle—the man-elf and his dark twin, the monster—when the long-simmering war between elves and trolls finally erupts with a devastating fury. And only the mighty sword Tyrfing, broken by Thor and presented to Skafloc in infancy, can turn the tide in a terrible clashing of faerie folk that will ultimately determine the fate of the old gods.   Along with such notables as Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner Poul Anderson is considered one of the masters of speculative fiction.
This edition contains the author’s original text.

I picked up The Broken Sword because I read several articles that called it as good as or even better than its contemporary, The Lord of the Rings. In fact, The Broken Sword is even referred to as the “first great American epic fantasy.” Seeing as it had such high praise, my expectations for The Broken Sword were high. At first, I was really into the premise of the novel, which features a young man named Skafloc being stolen from his family in the night by elves and replaced with a changeling. The Broken Sword sets up one epic tale of confrontation between Skafloc, raised and trained among the elves as a son of their earl, and the changeling, Valgard, who is never quite right and leaves a wake of destruction in his path. With completely different upbringings, the Norse Gods intervening with bargains and cursed swords, as well as wars between the trolls and the elves, forbidden love, and a witch out for vengeance there’s a whole lot going on.


It sounds pretty exciting, right? Well…somehow The Broken Sword, despite being only 230 pages, took me a long while to fight through. Not only is the book depressing, the pacing, and the writing style leaves a lot to be desired. The writing style is woefully simplistic, with the novel stating things and not developing its characters beyond their role in the story. For instance, Skafloc is carefree and good, Valgard his changeling shadow is bad and glaringly absent from him are any redeeming qualities that make him a sympathetic character or even an antihero,  Freda is pretty and innocent, elf woman Leea is gorgeous, cunning, tempting, and slippery—that’s all there is to these characters. I also had to continually roll my eyes and laugh at the typical male author description of women:


“Skafloc paused in the entrance, his heart beating faster at sight of her. She wore only a brief tunic, and her slim-legged boyish body, with its sweet curves of thigh and waist and young breasts, seemed poised in the gloom like a white bird ready for flight.”


And these descriptions of women are constant. I’m pretty sure all of the women in the novel, save the troll that gave birth to Valgard, exist solely to be alluring to the male characters. It gets very repetitive and fast. I also have to question the intelligence of having the main female character, Freda, sleep with someone who is the spitting image of her evil, family-murdering brother. Maybe this would somehow work as an aside, but unfortunately, this doomed romance between Freda and Skafloc is arguably the biggest plot point in the novel. I really just can’t even begin to comprehend how Freda could even remotely be attracted to not only someone who looks exactly like one of her brothers, let alone the one that has murdered her entire family and is trying to gift her to the trolls for them to do whatever they want with her (The Broken Sword does not shy away from the fact that it will be lots of rape, and makes these allusions as blandly as discussing the weather.) I feel that the only natural reaction to encountering somehow who looks exactly like this evil brother should be fear, but it’s somehow attraction for Freda.


Though Freda remarks that to her Skafloc and Valgard are unmistakable from each other due to the differences in their natures, Valgard is more quiet and sullen-looking than his “brother,” it feels like an extremely weak excuse. Skafloc too, does not really stop to consider the fact that another person looks exactly like him, because he’s so besotted with Freda, his sister. It’s very hard to suspend my disbelief that Freda and Skafloc just never thought through their exactly same appearances and then that they’re absolutely shocked and dismayed when it’s revealed that they’re siblings. I honestly cannot even comprehend how this romance was a major plotline that was foretold to lead to the doom of Skafloc. And it’s truly laughable how the novel frailly attempts to explain it away:


As for Valgard, Freda knew not save that he was her brother gone mad; Skafloc had sensed an inhumanness about the berserker, but with so much else to think over—especially Freda—did not stop to wonder at its reason or why the two of them should be almost twins. Belike, he thought, Valgard was a man who had become devil-possessed.”




“Nor did Freda think much about the likeness of the two men, for she could never have mistaken them. Eyes and lips and play of features, manner and touch and thought, were so different in them that she scarce noticed the sameness of height and bone structure and cast of face.”


I also couldn’t help but feel it was freaking ridiculous that everyone but these two knows, including his foster-father, and the jealous elf woman he spurned in favor of Freda, but no one tells Skafloc that he should not sleep with his sister, because it will “spell his doom.” O-kay. Instead, the entire Elf court just stands by as Skafloc falls more and more in love with Freda. It literally takes waking the dead for someone to tell these willful idiots the truth.


‘Do not so. What you must ask Imric is that he say naught to anyone of what he knows, least of all yourself. For the day you learn who your father was will be a dark one, Skafloc, and what will come on you from that knowledge will also wreak ill on the world.’


Putting aside the sheer ludicrousness of this whole plot line, I did like other parts of The Broken Sword. I enjoyed the unique portrayal of elves that the novel offers. Instead of wise and celestial beings, the elves are portrayed as being far less concerned with morals than their human counterparts. For instance, the elf woman that nursed Skafloc and raised him, also slept with him as an adult. And Skafloc helps himself to whatever elf woman he wants with her blessing before Freda comes along. I also enjoyed the inclusion of some Norse mythology, with the appearances of  Jötunn, Odin, many references to Loki, and the struggle between the old faiths and the new Christian ones.  But like in the case of its characters, the novel does not develop these gods and creatures beyond their purpose in the story.


The vengeful witch in the beginning of the novel was also a standout and I felt that The Broken Sword got a lot more boring when she wasn’t skulking about scheming against those that wronged her. But even the witch doesn’t have much development. I have no idea how she became a witch, if her family that she seems to avenge supported her witchcraft, her hopes and dreams or anything. She exists solely to be an antagonist. 


The biggest tragedy of The Broken Sword is not anything that happened in the actual novel, but that the author had such good ideas and couldn’t execute them at all well. The whole idea of a changeling and his brother facing off on opposites side of a fantastical war between different species was such an interesting concept. But sadly Valgard and Skafloc don’t even have much page time together and don’t even form a remarkable contentiousness. Instead all of the focus goes into Freda and Skafloc, which marks the rampant downward spiral of The Broken Sword. Perhaps if the novel hadn’t immediately put Freda in the same room with the two “brothers” and then repeatedly told us she just didn’t even consider their blatant, similar appearances, their romantic relationship would have worked better. Unfortunately, without a better rivalry, character development, and or a more believable story, the novel utterly fails to hit the mark of the doomed love story it so wished to be.


It didn’t help matters that The Broken Sword is filled with archaic language like “fain” that I constantly had to look up, and characters reciting lays left and right. Sometimes these lays are used to describe what is going on in a scene rather than actual exposition, which I didn’t care for. Plus, The Broken Sword is clearly heading for a bad end the entire way through, making for a depressing reading experience. (Why did I read this right before the holidays?) This bad end should have been tragic and gut wrenching, but it’s a testament to the writing that I couldn’t care about what happened to any of the characters and was relieved the novel was over. Though it appears The Broken Sword is setting up for a sequel, I certainly won’t be reading it and will probably be steering clear of the author’s other works, no matter how good they supposedly are. 

Book Review : The Broken Sword - Blogging with Dragons

Posted December 21, 2021 in Book Reviews, Fantasy

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5 responses to “Book Review : The Broken Sword

  1. Ben McLaughlin

    Maybe you are reading too much through a modern lense. This is harsh and fast like the classic sagas, it’s not the style of modern fantasy that spreads a story over nine volumes. It’s not simplistic, it’s just condensed, and I’d argue that requires more skill. It’s a shame you couldn’t appreciate what is an amazing book. To each their own I guess.

    • I certainly get the implication in your comment that I am too simple to understand the greatness of the book, but perhaps you should learn how to spell “lens,” before commenting on someone else’s intelligence level. Oh well, to each their own.

    • Eric Kerr

      This book is absolutely simplistic and not a contender against The lord of the Rings. I’m amazed something this sexist and gross can be considered great by some one like yourself. Really says a lot about your character.

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