AD 996. Norway. Ulfar Thormodsson and Audun Amgrimsson barely escaped the tumultuous, climactic battle at Stenvik at the end of Swords of Good Men with their lives.
Well, one of them did anyway.
I’m not giving it away! It’s there at the end of the previous book and it’s here on P1. “Audun had died on that wall.” So if you’d picked up the book in a bookshop, you’d have got it before you paid over your heard-earned. So there.
Norwegian King Olav has brought Christ’s message of peace and love to Stenvik – on the point of a sword and the pain of death. However, not all he converts seem to want to stay converted. The old gods still have some powers left, it would seem. The older gods still hold sway away from the march of the new God and confined to the shadows and the margins, they prove to still be strong and are gathering themselves, their strength and those who still believe.
Swords of Good Men was pretty much all centred in and around the town of Stenvik. Intense, concentrated and claustrophobic. This one folds out, spreads out. After the start, which picks up from the point Swords left off, the story splits pretty much in three and we follow Ulfar as he travels back to his home, to try and find safety in the old ways. Ulfar, is clever, quick-witted – maybe too much for his own good. Audun, is big, strong, slower through confusion about the situation he finds himself in and tries to cope with his fate and his anger. Then there’s King Olav. He’s a thug, a bully, a real bastard hiding behind a new religion he is able to interpret enough to let him go what he wants. He really doesn’t give a fuck, but does manage to realise the fight isn’t over yet. Odin and (I think) Loki put in an appearance, but nothing that hasn’t been alluded to as dreams in other books I’ve read that haven’t needed to be labelled as ‘Fantasy.’ A sixth sixth sense… makes me feel that maybe it’s only the dead Audun and Ulfar who can see them. See what I did there?
I was, as I’ve said elsewhere, surprised after reading the first book in Snorri’s ‘Valhalla’ series, Swords of Good Men, to find out that it was a ‘Fantasy’ series. For me and especially the way I read this, the fantasy elements play a small, mostly background part. I felt underway, that if this should be filed under ‘Fantasy,’ then so should Robert Low’s last Viking adventure, Crowbone. Just because people believed in magic at the time, doesn’t mean there was magic. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” as Arthur C. Clarke once said. There’s less fantasy and more honest-to-goodness, clear Viking story-telling here, than Robert ’No modern novelist knows more about the Vikings’ Low, that’s beyond discussion or argument. I have read a bit of this sort of fantasy in my time. I’d liken it to a toned-down, less ‘pulpy’ Robert E. Howard (look him up), the Conan of Cimmeria book (number 2?) in particular. Also reminded me of the first couple of Mythago Wood(s) (before they lost touch with reality and went totally bollocks), but never goes as far out in dreamland, as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time ended up in. And a lot more concise than the late Mr Jordan, which is a blessing in itself.
Blood Will Follow is perhaps not as wham!, bam!, in your face intense as Swords of Good Men, though it’s certainly more than just a transitional novel – moving the story from the start, to set up book three. The feeling of dread creeping behind you from Swords, is lessened, but that’s possibly and maybe inevitable, due to us now being familiar with the (remaining) characters and environment. The action is short, sharp, sporadic, but still visceral, bloody and intense. It is all turned down a little, there’s certainly less of it generally, but it is subtler for it in other ways and there’s plenty to be thinking on. The story is always clear and readable, but not everything is presented to you on a plate. There’s still some figuring-out to be done. And it’s not Fantasy.