Retro Review: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

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The High Crusade is the fast paced adventure story that melds both high fantasy and science fiction into an incredible epic adventure. The concept is an alien ship lands on Earth, an advance scout for an invasion force that preys upon undeveloped worlds, subjugating and taking their resources as a galactic empire expands. They land in the middle of the crusades, coming up against English knights ready to go fight in the holy land. Unfortunately for the aliens, the knights slaughter the advance party and steal their ship. From there, Sir Roger and his band of men find that the aliens can’t deal with direct physical confrontation from an energetic force, and set about conquering the alien empire on behalf of England and Christendom.

It sounds like a bit of a trite tale, and the voice that Anderson uses in this story definitely comes across as light-hearted, sometimes bordering on the absurd. But there is enough seriousness there that it keeps the story moving along and interesting. Like many of Anderson’s books, it’s told from a “story within a story” type of set up, where they’re tapping into a historical account of what happened from a futurisitic perspective, when it then delves into our main character’s thoughts on what happened with this group, the perspective of a direct observer.

The characterization is really nice, and the story really does come across like it’s being told by someone who was there, talking to us the reader directly. He intentionally mentions that he leaves out portions that would besmirch the Lady Catherine’s good name, and that brings a sense of charm and authenticity to the storytelling that we often don’t get from modern, more cinematic tellings of events.

The battles progress quickly, and some are glossed over as the crusaders take over different elements of the world. What I really enjoy the most is the budding jealousy between Sir Roger and Sir Owain, and how it isn’t just some background event, but how it consumes the plot toward the end. That personal touch in an impersonal adventure makes the story something that’s better to connect to, and really hammers a sense of character that’s missing from a lot of the older-style high fantasy adventures.

It’s almost odd reading a book with English men being heroes who conquer everything and make things better, and it’s nice not having a modernist spin on Christians/medieval people being “backwards” or somehow dumber than modern/future people. Historically, that was not the case, and that’s refreshing to read. The injustice gamer talks about it a bit in his review. I think he glosses over an aspect in a lot of ways – this has an anti-Colonialism bent to it that doesn’t seem to ring for now, but in the late-50s and early-60s with how Vietnam was developing, probably had a bit more of a different message than we’re reading it from in a historical perspective. Which is okay, as if a message is there, I think it’s buried well enough that you can have a fun adventure story without reading too much into it, unlike a lot of modern fiction.

It’s a really fast read, partially due to the pacing, but also because the book is very short, which ends up about the right length for the story as I came away fully satisfied with how it went, and not really needing more.  I don’t have any complaints, and though I think that Fire Time had better characters to attach to if going into Anderson’s work for the first time, this is right up there in terms of something I’d consider great fiction.

10/10

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