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Swords of Good Men

swords good menSwords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson
Published 2013, Jo Fletcher Books

Ulfar arrives in Stenvik with his cousin Geiri, thinking this is the last stop before returning home for exile. Instead, his life is irrevocably changed. Ulfar and Geiri make a mess of approaching the ruler of Stenvik, Sigurd, on behalf of his father and has to stick around until they can make it right. To the south, Olav, devotee of the White Christ, is gathering a huge army and forcibly repressing worship of the old gods. To the north, the most fearsome Viking captains are assembling under the direction of the witch Skuld in order to destroy Olav. The battle will centre on Stenvik.

I always enjoy Viking-based fiction and this is by an Icelandic author, which gives it an authentic feel. Probably entirely spurious, but there you go. Kristjansson has a stripped back, sparse style that carries the story forward at a cracking pace. Characters and setting are brought to life with deliberate, pointed description underpinning dialogue and action. It is enough but the setting, in particular, isn’t fully realised. Stenvik is the most completely evoked but it’s not clear where it sits in relation to anywhere else.

The big battle at the end is fantastic. It was exciting, thrilling and very gory. It’s fair to say I wasn’t really expecting the ending to go the way it did.

Diversity doesn’t come out brilliantly in this book. There is a character with a crippling illness and there are a couple of key female characters (in quite a large cast). They are quite stereotypical, but it’s fair to say that’s true of all the characters in the book. Most of the women are dead by the end and so are most of the men. Two thirds of the named characters are dead at the end. Very Shakespearean.

Overall, I enjoyed it. It was fun, fast-paced and surprising.

Boudica: Dreaming the Bull

boudica bullDreaming the Bull is the second of Manda Scott’s Boudica series and covers the period AD 47-54. Breaca and Caradoc, war leaders of the Britons, are in Wales preparing to meet the Roman invasion. Breaca’s brother Ban has become a Roman and is part of the army that Breaca must fight. Inevitably, they lose and Caradoc is captured. He and his children are taken to be part of a triumph in Rome and live there for a few years until a change of Emperor gives them an opportunity to escape. Caradoc recognises Ban, who has become the Roman soldier most feared in Briton, as Breaca’s brother and sends him home to meet her.

The book is structured around historical events and so some of the story arc is lost. It’s a very long book and sometimes feels like a bit of a slog. I found that it was best when I had a couple of hours to read and I could really get into it. There’s moments of beautiful writing and the pace is quite fast, but, for me, there is a sense of doom pervading the whole book. Breaca and her people, the way of life and communing with the gods so wonderfully imagined, don’t survive. Rome will destroy the dreamers and I find that very sad.

I didn’t enjoy Dreaming the Bull as much as Dreaming the Eagle. There was a lot I liked about it but reading it was an effort.

Fenrir

fenrirFenrir by M.D. Lachlan is the sequel to Wolfsangel and is really the same story. I’ll explain what I mean in a moment.

In Fenrir, a merchant is sent to bring a French noblewoman from Paris to Rus king Helgi because there is a prophecy that Odin will manifest on earth and trigger Ragnarok. The characters from Wolfsangel (Valli, Feilig and Adisla) are reincarnated in the characters in Fenrir, along with Odin and Fenrir, and it is not clear who is who. The merchant is accompanied by a mysterious warrior to protect him, as he is not the only one seeking Aelis, the noblewoman. The Vikings beseiging Paris also want her, as do two Viking shamans.

Aelis has her own ideas about this, which is nice to see, and takes charge of her own destiny in a way that feels consistent with her Christianity and the early medieval setting. It’s a gripe of mine that writing good female characters in historical settings means giving them modern sensibilities rather than fully embodying that character in time and space.

The characters are variously working for or against the manifestation of Odin and Fenrir, sometimes both. Lachlan manages to effectively convey a sense of confusion. None of the actors is sure what it is they are supposed to do and are wary of inadvertently bringing about the thing they seek to prevent.

Fenrir has a different style to Wolfsangel. Initially, I missed the lyricism and the mystical atmosphere of Wolfsangel, but I was soon drawn into the story. The change in style reflects the change in setting and underlines that this is the second cycle of the myth. It is the same, but not the same. In the end, Ragnarok is averted, but Odin and Fenrir will continue to try to manifest and the story will play out over and over again, until one day they meet and the end of the world begins. I enjoyed this and I’m looking forward to reading the next two cycles.

Death of Kings

death-of-kingsDeath of Kings by Bernard Cornwell is the sixth book in the Making of England series. Or The Warrior Chronicles, or the Saxon Stories, as it’s also known.  There are at least two more to go.

Uhtred of Bebbanburg is forty-five and broke. All the money he’s ever made has been spent on keeping is oath to Alfred. There have been times when he’s been rich but this isn’t one of them. He still harbours dreams of returning to Northumbria to reclaim Bebbanburg but he doesn’t have the resources and he’s running out of time. Forty-five is old for a warrior. And then there’s the pesky problem of the promises he’s made to Alfred and Aethelflead.

This installment of the series does feel very much like a mid-series book. It’s a bit slow and not much seems to happen. Alfred dies, his nephew tries to steal Wessex from his son, and the Danes combine forces to attack. There’s the threat of betrayal from an ally and lots of riding around the countryside looking for people to fight.

As always, the writing is excellent, and Cornwell provides a masterclass in simple yet effective prose. The characters are vivid and Aethelflead had a particularly good part in this book.

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been on my shelf for a while. I was leant it by a friend and have been feeling bad about having kept it for so long. Lately, I’ve seen Adichie’s name mentioned in a lot of the media I read and it inspired me to pick it up. I can’t say why Yellow Sunit has sat there unread for so long, except that I thought it might be heavy-going.

I was wrong. It is a beautiful read. Half of a Yellow Sun depicts the Nigerian civil war in the years just after independence from the British Empire and the short-lived existence of Biafra through the point of view of three very different characters. Ogwu is a village boy who gets a job as a house-boy to a university professor with radical views. He grows up in awe of learning and listening to the political debate his master and friends engage in. When the war comes he’s torn between looking after the family and becoming a soldier. He’s forcibly conscripted and his experience is horrific. Olanna is the daughter of a wealthy business man and was educated in London. She loves Ogwu’s professor despite her family’s disapproval. When times are easy she seems to struggle to navigate her relationships but when times are hard she’s the one that holds it all together. Richard is a white man that comes to Africa to escape his family. Before Nigeria becomes independent he thinks he has a good position. He loves Igbo art and culture, almost to the point of fetishizing it, and finds it’s purest expression in Kainene, who is Olanna’s twin. He rejects British expatriate culture and embraces Nigerian culture. After independence he finds that no one trusts him, but he stays in Biafra and doesn’t leave even after Kainene dies.

This is a big book in many ways. There is so much in it. As well as the three point of view characters there is a host of secondary characters that pop out of the page. Characterisation is good. Everyone in it is real. It’s a literary novel so it is heavy on narrative. Generally I like more action-driven books, but when the literary genre is done well it is amazing. This is done very well. The narrative builds the setting and the characters and brings the world to life rather than weighing the story down with exposition. I knew very little about this time and period of history – African decolonisation after WWII was my favourite class at university but we covered a lot in low detail – and I really enjoyed being educated about it. It was moving. I laughed and I cried. Mostly I cried.

There are some books that are so good I feel like giving up writing because I could never produce anything anywhere near as good. This is one of those books.

The Burning Land

Oh hai Uhtred. The Burning Land is the fifth in the Bernard Cornwall’s Saxon Chronicles. Regular readers will know I’m a fan and I enjoyed this one just as much as the others.

Wessex is once again plagued by Danes and Alfred still relies on Uhtred to fight his battles for him. The leader of the Danes has a woman, Skade, with him who is considered to be a sorceress. Uhtred captures her and uses her to lure Harald into an unwise attack. Skade curses Uhtred and although he wins the battles, he loses Gisela, his wife.

At Arthur’s court, a simpleton priest has a vision in which he says Skade and Gisela are the same. Alfred demands Skade is killed and Uhtred, humiliated, leaves Wessex. He goes to Durham where Ragnar is lord and finds him planning to attack Wessex, largely on the basis that Wessex will eventually attack them. Alfred is now calling himself King of the English.

Uhtred’s ultimate goal is Bebbanburg but for that he needs money and lots of it. He sails to Denmark where Skade’s first husband is said to sit on vast wealth. With few men and a cunning plan he takes the Danish stronghold but finds that the treasure is much smaller than it was said to be.  They return to join Ragnar but just before they march Uhtred finds himself ensnared again. He made an oath to Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed, and she has asked for his help. Her husband is trying to divorce her and she is holed up in a nunnery.

So, off he goes, because the love affair between Uhtred and Aethelflaed has been signposted since book one. Ragnar attacks Wessex and Haesten (the devious Dane ruling East Anglia) attacks Mercia. Uhtred is bound by his oath to defend Mercia. Naturally, he pulls it off with aplomb and a certain amount of work. And by the end, he’s as firmly tied to Wessex as ever and no nearer Bebbanburg.

I love these. Cornwell is a great storyteller. His characters are fantastic, the action is completely engaging and the pace is good. This was a nice change of rhythm from the last book which focussed on a single battle. It is no mean feat to have the fifth book in a series as entertaining and enjoyable as the first – and to have me looking forward to the sixth. And it’s not just because it’s got vikings in it, honest.

Last time I reviewed a Cornwell novel, The Fort, I noticed a heavy-handed use of dialogue tags. I did look out for them in this one, and they’re there, more than might be desirable, but not nearly as intrusive as in The Fort.

The Fort

The Fort is a rare standalone novel from Bernard Cornwell.

It tells the story of an early engagement in the American War of Independence. On paper the battle should easily have been won by the Americans but it turned out to be a victory for the British.

It is very closely based on fact and Cornwell manages to bring alive the cast of characters and show how personality can make a huge difference to the outcome of a fight like this.

It’s not his best work. Of course, it’s not bad by any standard, but I’ve come to expect more from Cornwell. I think it would have benefitted from another editorial pass. There were a lot of dialogue tags which I haven’t noticed in his writing before and I feel that had it had one more rewrite these would have come out. Because of that it feels rushed.

Otherwise, this is an episode of history I knew nothing about and I enjoyed the telling of it. Cornwell is very balanced in his presentation of what happened and it is hard to pick a side. There are sympathetic characters amongst the British and the Americans. I liked it, but it’s probably one for the fans.