Fast Forward Book Review for December 2010
The High Crusade
Wake Forest, NC : Baen Books, 2010
by Colleen R. Cahill
To celebrate a 50 year anniversary re-publication is an achievement for a book; many titles this old sit on the shelves totally ignored. Not so of Poul Andersonís The High Crusade, which Baen Books is re-releasing in a special anniversary edition. This mix of science fiction, medieval culture and a bit of a romp looks at the question: what if medieval English knights were to face a very advanced technology? It is clear this is a work that has influenced many, as the introductory appreciations by Greg Bear, Robert Silverberg and others really drives home why this is a book worthy of celebrating.
In 1354, the small community of Ansby, England is overflowing with soldiers getting ready to join King Edward III in a war with France. As Sir Roger puts his house and lands in order for his absence, a wonder occurs: a silver flying ship lands near the town, throwing everyone into confusion. Is this a miracle or is it demons come to wreak havoc? When Sir Roger and his forces go out to the ship, it is immediately obvious that this is not a friendly visit. In an unexpected turn (especially for the aliens), the English do not break and run but follow their battle training and attack. A new lesson is learned; energy weapons are effective, but so are armored men, especially when the enemy is not wearing any protection from blunt force. The English are victorious and now have a flying ship and an alien captive. In a flash of brilliance, Sir Roger decides this is just the thing to win King Edwardís war, so he loads not only his troops, but the entire village (including livestock) into the vessel, after getting the alien to agree to help. When given the controls, however, the alien betrays his word and sends the ship to a planet controlled by his people. Now our proud Englishmen face very bad odds on a strange world, where courage and cunning are their main weapons.
This story is a slim book by todayís standards, but donít let the size fool you. It is still a wonderful yarn, pitting horse cavalry and medieval sieges against laser cannons and atomic bombs. As first encounter stories go, this one has moments of tongue-in-cheek, but that just adds to the delightful atmosphere. The narrator, a self-effacing monk named Brother Parvus, reveals not only the strength of humans when faced with a challenge, but also shows the complexity of the society, such as when he refuses to allow alien hostages to be killed and states this directly to Sir Roger. The author shows his grasp of feudal hierarchy and culture throughout the work, with both the good and bad elements of it displayed. And for high verses low tech battle fans, this book has some great scenes; as a friend of mine has said, energy shields do little to stop a knight in full armor on a horse.
Perhaps the most wonderful thing about this story is even after fifty years, it still reads with all the fascination and humor that is a Poul Anderson piece. So if you missed this book when it first came out (by say, not being born yet), you now have a chance to charge into The High Crusade.