Northlanders (Book One of Sven the Returned)
To summarize this book very briefly, it takes a story of culture meeting culture via the galleys, which is at least as old as the version told in Ben-Hur (though Rafael Sabatini and Rosemary Sutcliffe added great variation to the genre) and throws that into Beowulf with a lot more sex and swearing. Violence will always be paramount to this kind of story, for the ancient world since Gibbon has been the site of the nasty and brutish (and lives are short and life is cheap in Northlanders). I have mixed feelings about it. I am in no way an expert on the Vikings or this period; in fact, most of my knowledge stems from reading some Norse mythology and having read Beowulf and seen the film Beowulf and Grendel (which shares a lot, tonally, with Northlanders). Perhaps it all comes down the bias which our (Christianized, at least by tradition) English-speaking culture looks back at the Norse, but their culture seems not only alien to me, but not something I can really relate to. This split is easily recognizable to anyone who reads Beowulf, given that you can easily pick out the sections that seem to have been revised by a Christian and those that have escaped the censor. This dichotomy was explored to some extent in Beowulf and Grendel, but it does not really come to play in Northlanders.
Which is interesting, given it is set in 980 A.D., which is some 200 years after the civilized Ireland presented in the Sister Fidelma mysteries. For a woman, Viking society (at least as presented in Northlanders) seems unappealing. Yet, if you’re a man reading a comic book, perhaps you don’t think about that. The cover proclaims, “Vikings finally done right,” and I can see the writer, Brian Wood, striving to present the mindset of a culture who believes you have to die with a sword in your hand to reach Valhalla. He also throws a curveball by giving a hero whose philosophy, if he had one, might be described as Epicurean; he is not religious. He’s a bit of a prick, really, though his personality and culpability do improve by the end of the book. So, with a hero like this and a setting of the vicious, unforgiving, violence-drenched Orkney Isles of the 10th century, how can I find anything good to say about this?
Well, it’s the addition of the galley story that opens up the world to a vision beyond just the Norse. Sven is of a lordly family from Grimness in Orkney, but runs away, is captured to row in a galley, makes it to Constantinople, and living on his wits and his proven fighting skills, helps run a merchant business with Zoe, until his return to his home and his prolonged battle with his uncle (and usurper, the irredeemable Gorm). In an interesting reversal to Ivanhoe, Thora, the blonde-haired woman at court who Sven left behind, has had to survive in the same way Ulrike, in that book, had to; by prostituting herself, and is desperate for Sven to take her away. He treats her badly, and it’s interesting that the only way a companionate relationship can be managed is with Enna, a Scottish archer and islander, the last surviving Briton from the island, and an outsider to his culture. She is easily my favorite character from the book, although their relationship, at first built on convenience, reminds me of the unorthodox one between Grendel and Selma in Beowulf and Grendel.
Saxons are brought in at the end to unite the Norsemen. Despite what the back cover says—“this pivotal time in history, when Christianity was replacing paganism”—this is not something really explored. Perhaps more is said about it in the following volumes of the story. I think for my part I would read on, but with caution. It’s the kind of book I have to hold at arm’s length rather than clasp to my bosom.
The art is provided by Davide Gianfelice and is very good, excelling at action shots but also the moody pages of panels illustrating exotic climes; they are as memorable as Sturla Gunnarsson’s cinematography of Iceland in Beowulf and Grendel.