An Introduction to the Epic Poul Anderson

Broken Sword

The illustrious Poul Anderson is another one of those scifi/fantasy grandmasters who you’ve probably never heard of if you were born after 1980. Although he was writing until his death in 2001, he seems to have fallen into obscurity in the later decades of his career, which is a damn shame.

Throughout the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, it seems liked Anderson’s worked appeared all over the place, in magazines like Planet StoriesFantastic, Galaxy, and Amazing Stories. He wrote both scifi and fantasy in a time when the lines were less rigid and authors often endeavored in a more general SFF arena. A quick glance at his list of works will show how prolific a writer he was.

Anderson was an official SFWA Grandmaster, a seven time Hugo award winner, three time Nebula award winner, an inspiration for famous writers like Robert Heinlein, and a buddy of Jack Vance and Frank Herbert.

FlandryI’ve only scratched the surface of his stuff, having read all three of his entries in D&D’s Appendix N and one or two of his short stories. I’ve Ensign Flandry queued up, which I don’t know much about but perceive to be a more traditional scifi entry than what I’ve read of his so far.

So if you’re interested in checking him out, where should you start? I’d say it depends on what you’re looking for.

If you’re interested in an epic, old school fantasy tale, full of gods and treacherous magic, not-so-good elves and an alternate to the Tolkien track of the genre, The Broken Sword may be for you. Honestly there were some elements of the story that really put me off, but the writing is top notch and there are a lot of very cool elements that you likely haven’t yet come across in your reading.

If what you want is a well-written but more paint-by-the-numbers fantasy story, I’d go with Three Hearts and Three Lions. This one didn’t wow me, but it’s a fascinating look at a work that contributed to a lot of D&D mechanics and contemporary fantasy tropes (regenerating trolls, anyone? this is where it came from!).

High CrusadeMy personal favorite is The High Crusade, a bold and extremely creative approach to what I guess we’d have to consider a scifi story under today’s system of categorization. In it, an alien scouting party lands in medieval England and decides to conquer the primitive Earthling civilization. But the aliens didn’t bet on the audaciousness of the English, who storm the alien vessel, kill most of the invaders, and capture the craft, which they then decide to use to attack France. Only things don’t go to plan. This one really impressed me.

No matter where you start, it’s probably hard to go wrong with Anderson. Highly recommended.


  1. Poul Anderson has been a consistently good read for me. Loved the Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions, loved Fire Time, and his Boat of a Million Years Epic Science Fiction was amazing. His short stories are also tight and well written. It’s amazing how influential he is, but how little underappreciated these days. Never gotten around to reading the High Crusade, though. I’ll remedy that soon. So many freaking books on my TBR pile!

    I’ve pissed off quite a few people when I said that Michael Moorcock is just a poor man’s Poul Anderson. (And to be clear, I like Moorcock as a writer, but he’s not in the same league as Anderson, Burroughs, Howard and most likely neither in the same league as Vance).

    • Yeah, I hear you. I do need to read some more of his stuff to make a more firm judgement (I’ve got Stormbringer on the shelf), but what I’ve read of Moorcock’s work didn’t impress me that much.

      • Stormbringer is the best book in the series, and genuinely awesome, if you don’t mind how fatalistic it gets.

        I would also recommend you try the Hawkmoon stories, specifically the first four books. They’re better than the Elric saga, in my opinion.

        Anyway, keep up the good work, I enjoy your SFF reviews.

        • Thanks man! I have the first Hawkmoon book, too, actually. Maybe I’ll read that before Stormbringer.

          Any movement on Vance in your queue? =)

          • No, unfortunately 🙁 I tried to read him a few weeks ago but I wasn’t feeling in the mood for SFF, so I decided to not ruin the story for me and try again later when I was in a better mood. Since the Weekend is already here, I’ll give The Dying Earth another shot.

  2. Hey, I was born after 1980 and I’ve heard of Poul Anderson.

    Some of my favorites of his were Operation: Chaos which is set in a world where magic basically is a type of science and A Midsummer’s Night’s Tempest which is set in a world where all of Shakespeare’s plays are literal history.

    • Well, me too. It was ever so slight hyperbole. 😉
      Most of my friend around my age have never heard of him, as he tends to be overshadowed by the likes of Asimov, Heinlein, Dick, Clark…all those guys that you can still find in big bookstores.

  3. ‘born after 1980…’ You youngsters.

    Poul Anderson wrote so much that was great all you have to do is look hard enough and you’re almost sure to find something you’ll like. I agree with Matthew about Operation: Chaos; that book, its sequel, A Midsummer’s Night’s Tempest and 3 Hearts & 3 Lions are all part of the same series, linked by an Inn whose doors open on many worlds.

    I think you’ll like Ensign Flandry, it’s pretty good space opera.

    Thanks for putting a spotlight on an author who deserves to be better known.

    • Thanks, John! I’ve got Operation: Chaos waiting to be read and I’ve heard it has that same Law/Chaos thing going on. I didn’t realize Midsummer Night’s Tempest was related or that the two were directly tied to Three Hearts. Interesting!

      • All three books seem to be part of the same multiverse. In Midsummer’s Tempest, the main character stays in an inn that links to multiple worlds where he meets characters from the two series. A short story set in the inn features a cameo of Nicholas van Rijn from Trader to the Stars.

  4. Poul Anderson manages to pack quite a bit of story into some pretty small books-a callback of sorts to that prior post of yours.

    My favorite is the High Crusade. What a great story. And, to our modern sensibilities, somewhat gonzo. Can you imagine trying to pitch a story like that now? The gatekeepers of publishing would laugh. And so would Hollywood. And it’s not necessarily the ‘gonzo-ness’ that would sink the idea but the sympathetic manner in which the crusaders are portrayed.

    But Anderson could tell a story. Compare some of his lackluster stuff with some of the dreck being pushed nowadays. The man was extremely readable.

Leave a Reply