Swords 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.
Fenrir 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 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.
I went to the British Museum’s Viking exhibition and I’m minded to read the Edda at some point. However it’s a big, heavy book and I’m putting it off on the basis that I don’t want to carry it back and forth to work. In the meantime, I also bought The Viking Gods, a small, lightweight book of snippets from the Edda, translated by Jean I. Young and accompanied by illustrations by Lorenz Frӧlich and Eggert Pétursson.
It’s a beautifully presented book. I liked the illustrations and enjoyed the stories. There’s not much depth but there’s a little bit of origin myth, a page for each of the main gods and some stories of life in Valhalla. It was lovely, and whetted my appetite for the Edda itself. When I’m feeling strong.
I’ve had this book on my shelf for a long time, wanting to read it but thinking it might be hard work. Seven Viking Romances, translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, is a collection of Viking adventure stories.
These tales are less serious than the Icelandic Sagas and have many more fantastical elements. There are seven stories, drawn from several centuries, with a common theme of raiding, pillaging and theft.
This book was an easier read than I thought it would be, in large part because the stories are meant to be entertaining and funny. They are essentially episodes of sailing around the world looking for notable warriors to kill and treasure to steal. For dramatic effect, once or twice the protagonists of the stories fail to kill the notable warrior. When that happens they either join forces with him or run away and come back later.
I was wrong to think that this would be heavy-going. It’s actually delightful and there were parts that made me laugh out loud. These stories don’t explore the ideas of right and wrong or offer a deep psychological insight into the motivations of the characters, or try to educate the listener/reader about the world. They are just entertaining tales from another time and place.