I live in Denmark, I have done the last ten years. I have learned Danish and I speak and understand it all day every day. I’ve read books in Danish. English-written translated into Danish and books written by Danish authors. And there’s a difference. You can see, read and tell there’s a difference. There’s a different way of thinking and formulating a sentence or a paragraph. A different way of putting an idea over. I’m not going to say their world view is different from ours, but having been here for ten years now, I can safely say they often have a different view of what is – and perhaps more interestingly – what isn’t important. What IS worth worrying about and what isn’t, what can be left to sort itself out.
When I was only a little way into ‘Swords of Good Men’, I said to the wife (you ask her), that even if the name didn’t give the game away, I’d put a whole load of her money on Snorri Kristjansson being a Scandinavian. Well, he’s from Iceland and f you’re worrying over my definition of ’Scandinavia’; (Wikipedia) *Sometimes the term Scandinavia is also taken to include Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Finland, on account of their historical association with the Scandinavian countries.”). It’s in that historical background, the assumptions made of the reader, the way of telling the story…and it’s written all over this absolutely superb book.
‘Swords of Good Men’ is different. No doubt about it. Firstly, because the action stays in Scandinavia. Snorri’s saga doesn’t follow the otherwise well-trodden (if can ships can be said to tread) path, the ‘Whale Road’, from Norway, Denmark etc, to Britain. Which is what, for most people I imagine, pretty much would actually characterise as being ‘Viking’. Here, neatly turning the 9th Century tables, it is Christianity which is the threat coming to the Vikings, from Vikings, in THEIR backyard. Their way of life is under threat from warriors emerging suddenly out of the mists. And they mean to defend it to the death. Get your head round that one for a start.
However, I don’t wish to get all 10th Century medieval on your asses here, with maybe making out like this is some sort of detailed allegorical study of paganism in retreat versus the onrush of Christianity (bringing the word of God ‘at the point of a sword and edge of axe’) that led to the end of the Viking era. It isn’t (really) and luckily for us readers, at least half of Snorri’s characters don’t know it’s the end and are ready to fight to the death. That’s what in essence is happening here. Odin and Thor and all the other Æsir don’t intend giving up without a fight. They are cornered, gathering their forces and ready to strike back using any means they can, over-, or underhand. And the little town of Stenvik is going to get caught in the middle, whether the people of Stenvik like it or not.
The book starts slowly and builds its story – maybe like a film that opens with a long shot, far away, that comes in, slowly getting closer and closer, bringing the events, characters and story to focus. It also stays away from what I usually think of as the ‘normal’ way of opening, with a huge battle or suchlike. It assumes you’re already with the story of the Vikings. That you know the world in which story is set. Yes, people know about Vikings, but the book is comfortable in assuming you’re NOT now thinking Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine. It mentions for example, without further explanation other than the name, Hedeby and Trelleborg, both important centres in Viking-age Denmark, but, I think, I’ve only ever seen mentioned once before in Viking fiction. Two travellers arrive in the town, Ulfar and his cousin Geiri who are traders on their way home. They find the anticipation and foreboding is building amongst the people. What will happen and who will survive when the – unstoppable – storm breaks over them? And then, when the tension becomes nearly unbearable and the storm does break, the book really delivers on its built up promise. With a final battle the like of which I don’t think I’ve read before. A battle so vivid, that it not so much places you directly in the centre, rather that whilst reading, it has you looking over your shoulder and checking for where the next death-dealing, blood-dripping, breast-cleaving, axe-wielding, seven-foot tall marauding berserker Viking warrior is coming from! If it doesn’t leave you breathless, get someone to hold a mirror in front of your mouth – you may be dead.
So, there are plenty excellently realised and memorable characters here. There are warriors and witches and where there are warriors and witches, there will be warfare. There are axes, broadswords and narrow escapes (you see what I did there?). There are characters to care about, to be worried about, to trust, to mistrust, to be afraid of, to be intrigued by. And characters you hope you’re going to meet again. Soon. ‘Swords of Good Men’ is just about everything you could possibly want and then some, from a novel about the Vikings. I didn’t want to compare and contrast with other Vikings books I’ve read, or will be reading in the very near future, but this IS different. It’s powerful, wonderfully imagined and presented and I’ve got to admit; it feels like the real thing. If it isn’t in my top three best reads of the year come December, I’ll be more surprised than…well, it ain’t gonna not happen.
And, as I’ve said before, as one of the Vikings in 13th Warrior says: “It’s alright little brother – there are more..” The second in Snorri’s Valhalla Saga, ‘Blood Will Follow’, comes out in *casts runes* June.