Three Hears and Three Lions surprised me when it came in to my local library through MeLCat. Huh, I thought. This is short. Despite being under two hundred pages, however, Poul Anderson’s first book about Holger Carlsen packs in a good story about both universe travel and traditional medieval European lore.
Our hero, Holger Carlsen, an engineer in World War II-era America and, later, Europe, finds himself back in his homeland of Denmark, assisting the resistance force there. While trying to get an important scientist to Sweden, Holger finds himself in a shootout with Nazis and passes out. He awakes to find he’s naked in a forest. Nearby is a horse, clothing, and gear that suits him perfectly. How he got there, he has no idea, but it soon is obvious that he’s not in Denmark anymore.
In trying to find out where and when he is, Holger gathers to him a dwarf, a woman who can transform herself into a swan, and a mysterious Saracen who has been seeking him out. Together, they venture to fight the forces of Chaos and further the goals of Law.
I found this book fairly entertaining. First of all, Holger’s body knows his life and his training; it’s his mind that gets in the way of him doing things with graceful skill. The message that you can think yourself out of the knowledge you already possess is a good one, and I think it’s pretty true. A lot of times, when I’m answering questions at work, it’s not until after the exchange has ended that the best answer comes to me — and then I have to chase the other person down and give them that information. Learning to trust oneself to do the right thing, if you know you have a firm grip on reality and usually do the right thing, is a great lesson.
Secondly, there were a couple of subplots and small events that were also entertaining. At one point, one town was suffering from a werewolf attack, which our heroes helped out with. Not only did it add a little action, but it also filled in some knowledge about magic in this new world that would have otherwise gone unknown. It helped explain some future events, and why they happened the way they did.
The third thing I thought was nice about this book was how it was solely from Holger’s point of view. There are several reasons why this is great. The first is that, sometimes, jumping between characters is annoying. The second is that it allows us to only see what Holger sees. While one can sometimes see the action he should take, there are some situations where what he should do — or even what is going on — is obscured. For example, his swan-maiden friend, Alianora, who is also his love interest, shows some response when Carahue, the Saracen, flirts with her. Holger, seeing only that a woman he loves might be falling for another man, is distraught. Only in the end is he clued in to why Alianora acted the way she did.
Also awesome was the flip from a world where science is dominant to one where magic is dominant. Holger’s knowledge of basic scientific principles save the adventurers several times. Moreover, the actions he takes that have a scientific basis are seen as miraculous by the people of this other world. I thought it was a tastefully-done exploration on how two cultures can see both see one another as wondrous.
The only thing that I have a quarrel with is the speech of Hugi, the dwarf, and Alianora, as well as some supporting characters. It is colloquial. While I understood most of it, I wasn’t quite sure what type of accent they were meant to have, and so some word spellings were lost on me, and I couldn’t figure them out. I might spend a bit of time on piecing together something if I have a linguistic interest in it, I don’t want to have to do it in a piece of fiction I read for enjoyment. I want the characters to be understandable.
Despite the occasional linguistic confusion, I enjoyed Three Hearts and Three Lions. It’s cute, it’s action-packed, and it’d be a good read for anyone who likes The Chronicles of Prydain. Highly recommended.