Usually a science fiction and fantasy author, Lawhead goes with a bit of straight historical fiction here. The fantasy style still fits as we get an action adventure romp around the ninth century with a good dose of mystical Irish Christianity. The plot is fairly ordinary for this sort of this: inexperienced monk travels, captured by and joins Vikings, then various bits of scheming in the east. The settings are good though, although the action does tend to skip large distances, we get a reassuringly detailed description of life in an Irish monastery, life on a small Scandinavia homestead, visiting Byzantium, and so on.
The characters and dialogue too are above par for this sort of thing. Or the main character anyway – there’s a side line throughout of the staunchly Christian hero Aidan struggling with his faith. This may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does add another (moral) dimension to the book above and beyond what other historical fiction authors like Bernard Cornwell or Tim Severin have done with similar stories. It kind of cool to have a hero who does actually change in outlook gradually throughout the book.
The ending was a little unsatisfying. Aidan fighting with his sense of Christianity in the face of suffering and corruption. It all gets tied up in the last few pages and the epilogue, but we don’t really get to see the new found contentment – it is rather briskly narrated to us. It’s a shame after all that (slightly depressing) self-reflection to basically just tag on a happy ending in a page of epilogue. Again the religious element may not be to everyone’s taste (or so it appears on Goodreads), but it does add some extra depth to the character that the book would be a bit flat without.
This is probably the first Viking history I’ve read since Horrible Histories, when I was a kid. I’m certainly wasn’t disappointed – Parker gives a narrative history of the Vikings through their early raids in Ireland, France and England, to the high points of the great Heathen Armies and the Danelaw, and finally the settlement into various Christian kingdoms. Alongside this he covers the sagas and writings that have preserved this Norse culture so we can read it today.
This book ties in with a few other things I’ve read recently – Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris and The Empire Stops Here. There is a little bit on mythology here, but by and large Parker is focused on fact (or at least the more possible sorts of legend). The myths of Loki, Odin and Thor are mentioned, but only to explain how the fit into the Viking world. Actually, Christianity plays as big a part in this history, and much of our story is on the conversion and settlement of the pagan raiders. By avoiding telling these myths for their own sake, Parker actually gives the book a greater sense of purpose. It allows an almost unbroken focus on the raiding and colonization of the Norsemen; one can get a sense of the connections and development throughout Scandinavian societies.
In comparison to The Empire Stops Here, I preferred Parker’s style here. Although he clearly has a solid take on the dry details, Parker’s writing is at his best when he has a colourful story to tell. The Viking world isn’t short of those! Harald Hardrada in particular stands out, for me, as a highlight. He was a man who seemed to collect good stories, even when they were blatantly stolen from elsewhere!
The chapters on Iceland, Greenland and (what we know of) Vinland are also good. They give a good picture of how the societies in these lands were built, and what may have went wrong (in the case of the latter two). Parker deals with the problem of evidence well; in many situations we just don’t have historical evidence to fill in a complete picture.
Parker keeps a pace and a vividness that makes the Viking age just as interesting to read about as the stories one reads a a child. Maybe a bit more factual, but also more varied – the Viking influence spanned such a geographical area (from North America to the Middle East) and time (Norn was being spoken in the Scottish islands as late as the 19th century!). It’s just a luxury to encounter them from such a distance.
Just a quick post on this one: It’s basically a fairly straight retelling of Norse myths, but with Loki as a cocky teenager. The underlying myths are fun, so there is a certain amount of enjoyment in reading them again, but I can’t really get past Asgard as the “popular crowd” or Fenris as a stroppy teenage son. It’s definitely a different take on it, and Harris does make the style just about fit, but it feels a bit half baked.
Compared to other modern takes on these myths and characters like AS Byatt’s Ragnarok or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the Gospel of Loki is very straightforward – it’s just the old narrative with a twist in perspective. Seeing the various legends worked in is nice, but the characters around it are one dimensional and the style quickly grates. It might work with more humour, but there isn’t much beyond Loki’s occasionally sarcasm. For me, it isn’t really enough to make it work.
As a follow up to my post on the Viking exhibition at the British Museum – I just saw an article pointing out the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. There, for the measly price of £14,650, you can buy the Trýbekkur – a semi-authentically made ship of your own. Semi-authentic because it uses some genuine Viking tools and techniques, but also some mass production to keep costs affordable for the common Norse raider.
Continue reading Post 16: Buying a Viking Ship
British Museum, 6 March – 22 June
This has been much publicised and has not got long left to run, but I thought I’d belatedly post my thoughts on this wonderful exhibition (spoiler – they may be positive).
The Vikings created a huge international network of trade and culture, ranging from Iceland through the British Isles and Scandinavia, across northern Germany and into Kiev and the Black Sea. It incorporated influences from Arabia, the Byzantine Empire, the Franks and more. This exhibition brings artifacts from sources all over the world that display this range, with the star of the show Roskilde 6, the longest Viking ship even found – a 37m long warship holding roughly one hundred men.
Continue reading Post 14: Vikings: Life and Legend