Previously, I have reviewed a Viking trilogy by Giles Kristian on Fresh-scraped Vellum. That series is set during the period of the Viking raids into Britain and France, which began in 793 AD. A new novel by Kristian, God of Vengeance is set slightly earlier, with a prologue in 775 and most of the action ten years later in 785. I absolutely loved this novel, and Kristian is becoming one of those authors I seek out.
Kristian’s strength as an author of historical novels is that he seems to understand that Vikings of the Eighth Century had very different world views and motivations from we “moderns.” I don’t say he’s unique in this, but that he incorporates it very well. The characters in God of Vengeance are motivated by several desires: the desire for lasting fame, as would live on in the tales of traveling Skalds; the needs of a culture of “honor” and “reputation”, whereby wrongs against one’s family must be avenged at any cost; and the overwhelming belief in the gods who would accept fallen warriors into “Valholl” only under certain conditions – which mainly meant dying in honorable combat weapon in hand. The vengeance required by this culture led to the Norse tradition of “Holmgang” – a form of duel or feud that could go on for generations at great cost in blood and treasure. All of these motivations feature prominently in this book.
|The Corpse Hall of Valholl|
We first meet 7-year-old Sigurd, the youngest of Jarl Harald’s sons, on a boar hunt with his father and the King – Gorm “Shieldshaker” – to whom Harald has sworn fealty on the island of Karmoy in southwest Norway in 775. King Gorm graciously offers Sigurd the first spear throw at a giant bull elk and compliments the boy when his throw hits the elk but fails to lodge, allowing the prey to escape. Jarl Harald is proud of his son and Sigurd’s spear no longer feels too big for his hand as the hunting party returns to the King’s great hall in Avaldsnes.
The action then jumps ten years, as Jarl Harald and his war band in Skudeneshavn prepare to answer the King’s summons to join him in a ship battle against the usurper Jarl Jandver. Harald’s three dragon ships full of seasoned warriors will add serious strength to Gorm’s fleet in Karmsund Strait between Karmoy and a smaller island at the seaward side of the large Boknafjorden. (A very helpful map is provided, although some locations are left off). Of Jarl Harald’s sons, only 17-year-old Sigurd will be left behind with his mother Grimjild and sister Runa and the other young boys and old men. Sigurd’s friends Svein and Aslak will remain behind to join him and Runa in watching the battle from the heights of Karmoy overlooking the strait.
Without giving away the whole plot, let’s just say that King Gorm and Jarl Jandver have come to an arrangement, the results of which is to leave Sigurd and a very few of his father’s folk fugitives, their homes burned, and their warriors and jarl dead. Runa has been enslaved by Jandver and Sigurd burns with the fires of vengeance, which will lead him around the fjords and lands of Norway, gathering a motley crew of young, old, former slaves and even a fierce shield maiden. Among the most valuable are Olaf, his father’s oldest friend who feels great shame in letting his Jarl die, and Solmund, a great sailor. So, even though the once proud fleet of dragon ships now sails for the traitors, Sigurd will have a small boat named Otter, a skilled helmsman, and the beginnings of a crew of proud warriors. The Skald Hagal is not formally a part of the crew but will be a valuable ally.
I really enjoyed this novel. As noted above, I think we moderns fail to fully appreciate that their beliefs in the gods of the Norse were not casual to them. These men had likely never heard of Christianity and may not have known that other religions even existed, although some missionaries had reached Denmark by this time. Sigurd and his fellows live in a world fully integrated – in their minds and hearts – with the world of Odin and the gods. They “know” beyond doubt that dying in battle, weapon in hand, is the key to joining the eternal feast in Odin’s corpse hall Valholl with those who have gone before. The sea is not merely a natural thing, but the domain of Ran and her hungry daughters. The rocks, trees, and streams are homes of gods. Ravens are not just birds but Odin’s spies and omens. Sigurd must test himself against Odin himself to gain the favor of the gods. This is all integrated with the plot, not pasted on. We, the reader, never know to what extent forces beyond the natural affect events. But, Sigurd and crew have no such doubts. Sigurd comes to be identified as “favored of Odin” after undergoing an ordeal and also with Odin’s son Vidarr – the God of Vengeance of the title. Sigurd is aided in his quest by his father’s Godi, Asgot, whom men fear for his powers.
Sigurd and his slowly growing crew travel around the periphery of Boknafjorden and even make a dangerous open sea voyage up the west coast to Osoyro in the attempt to recruit enough warriors to fulfill his vow or revenge against Jarl Jandver and King Gorm. Most urgently, his sister Runa has been promised as bride to Jandver’s son in a ceremony to be held at the Jule Blot festival at the winter solstice. Sigurd must be at Jandver’s hall with enough warriors to prevent this.
I will not give away any more of the plot. I think anyone who has enjoyed other novels and dramas featuring Vikings will enjoy this well researched and well written novel, the first in a series of indefinite length.
Thanks to Bill for the great review. And thanks to a wonderful new feature offered by Amazon, you can read a preview of the book here.