Have you ever wanted to throw yourself into a fantasy world? Tour through Middle Earth? Plan a trip in Narnia? Who hasn’t imagined themselves rubbing elbows with Robin Hood or Jason’s Argonauts?
Some folks have gone so far as to write their own cross-world adventures, much to the delight of their readers. L. Frank Baum made it a common practice to feature immigrants from the “real world” to Oz. L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, in their Incomplete Enchanter, detailed the travels of Earth-dweller Harold Shea through Norse Mythology and The Faerie Queen.
And now, the esteemed Poul Anderson has taken a stab at the genre with Three Hearts and Three Lions. Our protagonist is Holger Carlsen, a broad-shouldered but bashful engineer from Denmark who joins the resistance when his country is invaded in World War 2 by Germany. At the peak of a pitched battle with Nazis, Holger is explosively propelled into another world.
At first blush, it is a world remarkably like our own, though in an earlier time. How else to explain the identical constellations, the existence of France, Spain, Saracens, and the Holy Roman Empire? But then, what business do real witches have in medieval Europe? Or, for that matter, trolls, dwarves, Morgan le Fay, and a swan-may named Alianora?
Holger, it seems, has taken on the role (if not the memories) of The Defender, this world’s greatest hero. As on Earth, a war is brewing between the forces of Law and Chaos, and Holger is somehow the key to both conflicts. Through a series of adventures, the inadvertent (but capable!) Sir Holger must wend his way through the lands of Faerie and humanity on a quest to save the day.
Anderson demonstrated his knack for archaic language in his recent The High Crusade. He uses it to good effect in Hearts, though the thick Scottish accents, rendered faithfully, can be a bit confusing at first. The setting he paints and the characters we meet are portrayed as vividly as ere we saw them in The Song of Roland or The Death of Arthur. Many of the chapters are almost stand-alone stories, by turns hilarious and gripping. I usually find scenes of battle to be tiresome, but Anderson knows how to make them exciting.
A fun thread that runs through Hearts is its scientific consistency. While fantastic, magical things indisputably exist in Holger’s new world, most rules of science still hold, which the engineer-protagonist uses to good advantage. For instance, who knew that faeries’ aversion to sunlight was a simple UV-allergy?
I won’t spoil another inch of Hearts. Suffice it to say that it only gets better as it goes along, and Anderson has done a splendid job of translating traditional medieval fantasy for a modern audience.