Review: Thunder God by Paul Watkins

Thunder Godout of 5 shields

My version:
Fiction Vikings
Faber and Faber

A gripping, acclaimed action-packed Viking epic. Set in the 10th century, when Viking raids were at their peak, Paul Watkins spins a tale that covers three continents. After centuries of ranging unchecked across the northern world, the fortunes of the Vikings have begun to turn. In this time of violent change, a young man, struck by lightning, is believed to be marked by the gods as a keeper of the Norse religion’s greatest secret. To save the Norse faith and himself, he embarks upon a journey that takes him far beyond the boundaries of the known world, where he must confront not only his own gods but the gods of a people yet more savage.

“Few contemporary novelists have the ability to grab readers by the throat with such intense story-telling power and not release them until the final page has been turned.” Sunday Times.

Being captured by Viking raiders as a boy, was clearly something of a problem in Viking times, because as with The Long Ships, this is how Hakon’s story starts. What follows, is an extremely interesting, powerfully affecting and hard to put down journey through several key points and themes of the Viking’s world. If you are acquainted with any of the most interesting Viking legends, you’ll find them referenced here. For instance, the Swedes who journeyed east, leaving runestones behind to mark their progress. The ‘Halfdan’ who was with them and and is noted on those runestones, features, and it was he who carved his name in runes on the base of the column in St. Sophia (modern Turkey). On this level, it reminded me of Tim Severin’s ‘Viking‘ books, which are very good, I hasten to say, however, the incidents as told here, fit more with the general story, rather than checking them off on a list as Severin’s books did sometimes feel like they were doing. Severin’s book(s) – as The Sea Road – dealt with the Viking’s voyages to North America, this one doesn’t, quite. I don’t want to give anything away, though if you are at all interested in such things, ‘cutting edge’ theorising about who went where and when, back then, perhaps the later stages won’t be so strange. Read it, you’ll be entranced and satisfied, that’s all I’ll say.

Thunder God, is probably the book Robert Low thought he was writing when he was struggling with finding another way to describe bad weather’s evil portents, with the quite dreadful Crapbone. And, unfortunately for anyone who slogged through that mire and wants to go knocking on Low’s door asking for that time back, someone known as ‘Prince Crowbone’ does come disturbingly close to putting in an appearance here. Well, we knew Low was basing, however loose and dull, his books on real events I suppose.

However, Thunder God is really good. It is a compelling, enthralling, perfectly written, poignant, illuminating, satisfying read. As mentioned above, there are clear echoes of The Sea Road, by Margaret Elphinstone (there’s something in the Celtic waters, when they turn their hand to
writing about Vikings), in the way the Norse are fatalistic melancholy. Historical Fiction writers are agreed that they were like this, anyway. It’s hard to say what the overall theme might be about. Perhaps not so much about the inevitability of Christianity coming to forcibly replace the power the Viking gods held for the Norse people – though that ‘peaceful,’ ‘turn the other cheek’ Christianity effectively brought an end to the Viking age just when it was starting to get interesting, always bugs me in novels and non-fiction. Don’t know about you. Perhaps it’s that the characters in the book are slowly coming to the realisation that really the only ‘gods’ they need, that they can depend on, are themselves. The main character(s) seem to want the old gods to continue, but it’s never at the expense of this new ‘White Christ.’ They never seem to want to defeat the ‘new religion, unless it wants to attack them. Which it does. It always seems that the Vikings were pragmatic enough to envision the new god fitting in to their own system, with the potential of being turned to by them when his expertise is needed, like they did with their own. They can’t understand why he is thought so all-powerful to not need help from other gods. Their gods basically tell them ‘sort it out yourselves,’ when followers of the new god pray that their new god will sort it out for them. The average Norseman and woman in the street, converted to Christianity for practical, down to earth reasons. In order to continue doing business with their trading partners, these partners demanded the Vikings to be Christian, so they changed. The ‘demanding’ nature of the Christian god, is what most authors pick up on and turn it into a black against white fight that can only have one winner. And the Vikings lost. The book seems to be at one with the practicality of this thought and (in my opinion) says the Viking people generally, will only progress once they come out from under the shadow of reliance on the belief in their gods. Which in a way, to come away from the fatalistic melancholy that dependence on the gods  and do it yourself, is what their gods were all about.

Thunder God is one to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best, most entertaining, effective and rewarding Vikings novels. No doubt about it.

You can buy Thunder God at The Book Depository

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

Viking Odinn's Child Tim SeverinThe Sea Road






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