Review of small press and independent books.
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...then you'll love 'The Whale Road' by Robert Low (2007, Harper Collins). I've come across a lot of wistful comments on various websites recently, reminiscing about Henry Treece's 'Viking's Dawn' and its sequels - well, this is the 18-certificate version, 'Viking's Dawn' with sex, swearing and black magic. It's set in the second half of the 10th century AD, when Christianity is beginning to push back the old gods, and Viking war bands are hiring themselves out as mercenaries across the rest of Europe.
As in Treece's story, the protagonist, Orm Bear-Slayer, is a very young Norseman on his first raiding journey. The tale begins directly after the incident that has just won Orm his name, when the feral white bear that was his father's curse smashed its way through the roof of the hut that Orm was staying in, and according to the story that's already being told, 'brave Orm, a mere boy becoming a man, fought it over the headless body of Freydis the witch-woman. Fought it for a day and a night and had finally driven a spear into its head and a sword into its heart.' Only Orm knows what really happened when the bear broke in, 'a cliff of fur, a rank, wet-smelling shriek of a thing that swung a snake neck with a horror of a head this way and that...' and how it ended up dead and he alive, and he's never, ever telling. On the strength of this spurious reputation, Orm joins the Oathsworn, the raiding band of Einar the Black. The Oathsworn are off on a monastery raid, but they aren't just going a-viking for fun and profit: they have been hired to steal a particular relic for a man who thinks it will lead him to... well, Einar has his own ideas about what his paymaster is looking for, and with the aid of Orm, who can read Latin, he has a plan to get there first.
Robert Low is a re-enactor, and it shows in every gritty line of 'The Whale Road' - this is a man who knows exactly how far you'll get trying to run uphill in a chain-mail hauberk, or fight in a helmet with a full face-plate. The book is true to life and well-researched, as well as being as grim, bloody, gripping and fast-moving as one of Odin's own ravens, and as an ex-re-enactor, an archaeologist and a youthful fan of Thorkell Fairhair myself, I can't recommend it enough.
I love stuff like this (I was a Henry Treece fan) - absolutely lap it up. A member of Wear Valley Writers is currently writing a Viking novel and I love it when we have 'work in progress' nights and I get to hear some of it. Guy Gavriel Kay's tried his hand at Viking stuff, but he doesn't convince the way he does when he writes about Byzantium, so maybe Robert Low is the chap to read. Certainly sounds like it.
Hmm, would you be thinking of 'The Last Light of the Sun', by any chance? I certainly filed that under 'Too Bloody Fey by Half': it reminds me of what the late Diana Wynne Jones had to say about the 'Pan-Celtic Tours' breed of fantasy epics. Another thing that I forgot to praise in my initial review of 'The Whale Road' is the bleak Icelandic saga quality of the plot: Einar does something that could be construed as infringing the oath that binds him and his warband together, and as the situation deteriorates, the plan gets weirder and weirder and people start dying, the Oathsworn start thinking more and more that his luck and moral authority are gone, but they can neither turn on him nor leave, because Einar's disintegration is an illustration of what happens to those who go back on their oath...
Last edited by RDGardner (2011-06-10 17:55:02)
Yes, that would be the one, and your 'Too Bloody Fey by Half' is spot on. It's the only one of Kay's novels I haven't practically learnt off by heart. 'Tigana' is still one of the best novels written by anyone in any genre. Along with 'Fire Upon the Deep' of course, and Vinge has written a sequel so I MUST get that soon. Sorry, drifted into sci-fi for a moment there, but only because it was your review of 'Roadside Picnic' that induced me to buy what has now become a firm favourite.
'The Whale Road' is going on my reading list.
I think the trouble with Guy Gavriel Kay's quasi-Vikings was that he wasn't really interested in them, and despite having one as a viewpoint character, he didn't expend any effort on characterising them, compared to his quasi-Saxons and quasi-Celts. An example of sloppy thinking: at several places during the story, a quasi-Viking meets another quasi-Viking and greets him or her by wishing him or her 'Ingavin's peace'. Now, since the god Ingavin is most notably characterised by one eye and a mead-hall full of dead warriors, I don't think he really specialises in peace, except for a very particular kind, which you would not take very kindly to being wished by someone. This is a mark of an author who really couldn't be bothered.