So yesterday Paul McNamee posted about a short story by Paul Finch, “Damned Ranker.” I’ve got the anthology it appeared in (somewhere) but haven’t read it. I intended to, but ended up reading something else by Finch. In the conversation Paul and I had in his comments, he mentioned he’d like to see more historical fiction by him.
Which brought me to Darker Ages. It’s a small hardcover collection of two historical fantasy novellas, published in 2004 by Sarob Press. It’s long out of print. I don’t recall where I picked my copy up, but I know it was an intentional purchase. I’d read After Shocks, Finch’s first collection of ghost stories from Ash-Tree Press. (I reviewed a story from his second collection.)
Darker Ages looked especially intriguing, and I’m not sure why I didn’t read it when I bought it, but for some reason I didn’t. The book ended up on a shelf out of the way. I decided to read the first story, “The Blood Month”, which has since been reprinted in Medi-Evil Book 1.
This is a viking story with a surprising depth to it. It opens with King Olaf Haraldsson’s defeat at the Battle of Stiklestad. Finch does a great job describing the battle. His descriptions of combat reminded me a little of Robert E. Howard’s.
Following the battle, two brothers, Radnar and Ljot seek refuge at their uncle Sigfurth’s holdings in Greenland. They arrive after Morketiden has started, the period of the year in which the Sun never rises above the southern horizon.
The brothers learn that something is killing the people of the settlement. It strikes without warning, and it kills in a variety of ways, most of them gruesome. For instance, the strongest man in the settlement was found tied to a tree and set on fire, but the only tracks in the snow were his.
The men are completely demoralized and frightened. Their uncle, renowned as a great warrior, is a shell of the man he once was. Radnar and Ljot agree to find and kill whatever is attacking the settlement.
Both Radnar and Ljot each undergo a crisis of faith, and Finch does an outstanding job of presenting this. I especially liked Radnar’s coming to terms with his faith on the mountain above the settlement while watching his uncle’s sheep. Rather than presenting religion as a flimsy and stereotyped thing, Finch shows the complexity of belief and how it impacts people’s lives and decisions.
There’s also a strain of what has been called “the Northern thing” in this story. Often in Norse sagas, victories are hollow and come at a high cost. There’s some of that here. Finch has an original monster, and at least one of the brothers is not satisfied with the way things turned out.
The other (longer) story in Darker Ages is “Twilight in the Orm-Garth” and is set in England shortly after the Norman conquest. It’s in Medi-Evil Book 2. I’ll review it soon.