Category Archives: vikings

Caught Between Warring Gods

D. W. Roach
trade paper $12.99
ebook $2.99

I’ll confess, I bought this one based on the cover art as much as anything.  I’m a sucker for a knockout blond with a sword.  It turned out to be a good buy.

Audan is a young Viking, son of an ambitious chieftan.  A raid goes wrong, and by wrong I mean they don’t kill everybody, and the survivors come for revenge.  Audan’s father answers to another chieftan higher ranking than he is.  As punishment, he send Audan’s father and his men on yet another raid.

It turns out to be a fight they can’t win. Continue reading

A Saint Patrick’s Day Observance, Robert E. Howard Style

Swords-smSwords of the North
Robert E. Howard
The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press
$50 nonmember, $45 members

Robert E. Howard was enamored of the Celts, so I thought I would look at a pair of stories featuring his Irish pirate, Cormac Mac Art.  Cormac is an Irishman who has been banished from the Emerald Isle.  He’s thrown his lot in with a group of Vikings led by Wulfhere, a giant of a man.  Cormac resembles a Conan prototype in the way he is described.  He’s got the haircut, and whereas the rest of the Norsemen are bearded, or at least mustached, Cormac is clean shaven.

These two stories are straight historical fiction without any fantastic elements.  They’re still solid pieces of writing, full of battle and carnage, with a few twists thrown in. Continue reading

A Review of “The Blood Month” by Paul Finch

medievil12Medi-Evil Book 1
Paul Finch
Brentwood Press
ebook $2.99 Kindle
B&N doesn’t show a listing of the book, even though I bought my copy through them.

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. Continue reading

For Great Viking Combat, Look No Further

Swords of Good MenSwords of Good Men
Snorri Kristjansson
Jo Fletcher Books
Hardcover, 298 pp., $24.95
ebook $9.99 Kindle Nook

I came across this one not too long ago in B&N. Over a period of a couple of weeks, I picked it up and browsed through it. I don’t normally buy hardcovers if I’ve not heard of the author, especially if the hardcover is a first novel as this one appeared to be. But I had a coupon, and there really wasn’t anything else that looked very interesting that particular evening. So I took a chance.

Boy, am I glad I did. This was a terrific novel. If I had to sum it up in one word, that word would be “visceral”. Continue reading

Long Looks at Short Fiction: The Last Rune by David A. Hardy

“The Last Rune”
David A. Hardy
Sorcerous Signals

Sorcerous Signals and its sister publication The Lorelei Signal are a pair of online publications I’d not encountered before.  I’m going to check them out after reading “The Last Rune” by David A. Hardy.

This one was a little different than the short fiction I’ve looked at in the last month or so.  Most of the stories this series has focused on lately have been fairly straightforward with relatively few named characters.  “The Last Rune” is by far the most complex.  While having a central viewpoint character, there are a number of named secondary characters and a multi-layered plot.  This is not a bad thing.  Quite the contrary, although it means you shouldn’t read it if you’re tired or sleepy; you need to pay attention.  But do read it.  It’s a good blend of fantasy and vikings.

The story starts out with an attack by vikings on the feast hall of King Hugleik of Upsalla.  Among those defending the hall is Ulf Bloodeye, the protagonist.  Set against him among the attackers is Starkad Stovikson.  These two have a history which is recounted in another story, “Vikar’s Doom” not available online. It is available in Mystic Signals 9, but I don’t have a copy yet or I would have reviewed it as well.

Where the story really picks up is in the aftermath of the battle.  It seems King Hugliek possesses a powerful rune.  Starkad takes off with it, and Ulf (who barely manages to survive the battle) tracks him down.  That’s a vast simplification, of course.  I’m not sure I can summarize everything without giving some stuff away.  Hardy kept me on my toes with this one, and I was never certain where he would go next.  There are some figures (human and animal) I presume to be from Norse myths, although I’m not certain.  My knowledge of Norse mythology isn’t as extensive as my knowledge of Greek and Roman. 

There’s plenty of combat and action in this one, and the pace is relentless.  One of the things I liked most about this story was the attention Hardy paid to detail.  The storyline was a well-woven tapestry where small things that didn’t seem to be such a big deal at the time, such as when one of the warriors has a private word with teh skald before the battle.  Turns out this little exchange, which the reader isn’t privy to, is a major plot point. 

“The Last Rune” was fun, and I’m looking forward to more adventures of Ulf Bloodeye. 

More Vikings, More Werewolves, and More Loki

M.D. Lachlan
Pyr, tp, $16.00, 442 p.

When I reviewed Wolfsangel a few months ago, I gave it a favorable review.  And while I enjoyed that book, I enjoyed the sequel more.  Fenrir takes place some time after Wolfsangel.  I don’t know history well enough to give specific dates, but I’d say a couple of hundred years have passed.

The story opens with vikings laying siege to Paris and accelerates from there.

The vikings are trying to capture Aelis, the sister of Count Eudes.  If he turns her over, they’ll leave the city in peace.  The vikings are trying to capture her for their commander Sigfrid.  He thinks he’s Odin incarnate and needs Aelis in order to fulfill a prophecy.  Aiding him are a sorcerer, Hrafn, and a witch, his sister Munin.

Aelis is not without her supporters.  First there’s the blind and crippled monk, Jehan the Confessor, who is regarded by many to be a living saint.  There’s a wolfman (which is not the same thing as a werewolf in this book) and his companion, Leshii, an aging merchant.  They want to take Aelis back to the city of Aldeigjuborg to their lord, Helgi.

If you are expecting some of these people to be Adisla, Vali, and Feilig from Wolfsangel reincarnated, you’d be right.  If you think you know which character is which, you’ll probably be wrong.  Lachlan kept me off balance and surprised as he slowly revealed who was who.  It won’t be who you think.  This is not a book you can easily predict.  Case in point, how the prophecy that Helgi would be killed by his horse was fulfilled.  Clever and entirely consistent with what had been established.  Also unexpected.

The pacing in Fenrir is relentless yet never rushed.  The book moves quickly.  My biggest frustration with it was dayjobbery and life kept interfering with my reading time.  I had hoped to have finished the book around the first of the month.  Unlike Wolfsangel, which took place over a period of years, Fenrir opens in the spring and closes the following March.

The characters have more depth than most fantasy characters, and Lachlan does a marvelous job juggling a number of major and minor characters, some of whom have multiple names, and making them individuals with their own characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses.  These aren’t just static characters, either.  They grow and change, to the point that one or two switch allegiance.  And Loki puts in a few appearances.  He doesn’t switch allegiance, though.

The action and combat are well done, and there’s plenty of battles from one-on-one to small groups clashing.  While there are no large armies meeting on the field, there’s still plenty of opportunities for heroism, as well as betrayal and savagery.

As good as Wolfsangel was, and it was good, Fenrir is better.  If this series continues to improve, it will be a high water mark in contemporary fantasy.  It pretty much is already.

Series like this one, the Danilov Quintet by Jasper Kent, the First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, and the Shadow books by Jon Sprunk, just to name a few fantasy series (and that’s not even getting into the science fiction), have made Pyr books my favorite publisher.  With quality like this, it’s no wonder Pyr seems to have a permanent place on the shortlists of all the major awards.

How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse, Viking Style

viking deadViking Dead
Toby Venables
Abaddon Books, 351 p. $9.99

We’re rather fond of vikings here at Adventures Fantastic, so when I saw this in the store, I knew I had to at least consider giving it a try.  After reading a sample in the middle, I took it home (after paying for it, of course) and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

While I’ve not gone in much for the current zombie craze, that might start changing, especially if I can find more stuff that’s this well written.  For a first novel, Toby Venables sets himself a hard act to follow.

The story concerns a grew of down on their luck vikings, led by a man named Bjolf.  The book opens with a raid on a small village.  The only problem is a rival crew of vikings got there first.  Bjolf and his crew end up fleeing for their lives, but not before acquiring a stowaway, a thirteen year old boy from the village named Atli, who just wants to escape his overbearing father.

Pursued into a fog, Bjolf and and his men lose their bearings and are only able to find land after a raven lands on their ship and they follow it to shore and into a fjord.  They’re not sure where they are, but it’s no place they want to be.  This is something they quickly discover when one of the crew is attacked by a draugr, an animated dead body.  Seems the woods are crawling with them.

Still pursued by their rivals, they managed to escape both the draugr and the other vikings.  Fleeing into a tributary of the fjord, they end up at a stockaded settlement, where they are welcomed as heroes come to rescue the people.  That’s not quite what they had planned to do.

Bjolf and his first mate, Gunnar, have two continuing conversations throughout the book.  The first is what would be the best country (i.e., one without a price on their heads) in which to settle down on a farm with a large farmhouse and a large woman in the door.  (I’m not being sexist; Gunnar, a large man, actually says that at one point.)  The other conversation concerns whether a man controls his own destiny or is at the mercy of fate.

The people are led by Halldis, daughter of the former chieftain, who was killed by his slave Skalla shortly after the draugr began to plague the people.  Skalla now demands tribute each month from the remaining villagers.  He’s working for some masters on an island further up the fjord.  These masters are viewed as sorcerers and as the source of the draugr infestation.  Of course, Bjolf and his men eventually do stay to help.

This is a book with many stories contained within the larger story arc.  For Atli, it’s a coming of age story.  For Bjolf and Halldis, it’s something of a love story, although given the situation, that never develops into a major plotline.  But mostly it’s a story about friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice.  And fate.  And heroism.  Oh, and did I mention sacrifice?

Venables does an outstanding job of balancing a large cast of characters.  The crew is more than just window dressing and red shirts, to be killed off when convenient to the plot.  About a dozen of the crew are given personalities and histories.  And while many of the ones we get to know don’t make it to the end, at least not alive, their deaths aren’t just for cheap shock.  The men feel each loss, and the reader does too.

On the other hand, juggling so many characters is a difficult trick.  Venables doesn’t always pull it off.  His viewpoint character shifts not only from chapter to chapter, but often several times within a chapter.  The chapters are short, and this can be a little disorienting at times.

This being a zombie novel, and a viking one to boot, there’s a pretty high gore factor.  If you’re squeamish you’ll want to keep some Pepto handy, because this book is worth reading.  It’s not one long zombie fight, although there should be enough to keep most zombie fans happy.  Instead the focus is on the characters and how they change throughout the course of the novel.  Venables keeps things from sliding into silly most of the time, although I did find the flesh-eating ants to be a bit over the top.

One thing you should be aware of, though.  Your understanding of the situation will change completely within the last fifteen pages.  Some readers might feel cheated a little by the twist at the end, when the identity of the masters is revealed.  Be prepared to have your chain yanked.  I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, so that’s all I’m going to say.

Viking Dead was a fun read.  Toby Venables will have a bright future ahead of him if he continues to write like this, especially if he improves throughout the course of his career.  If you like a bit of zombie mayhem with some depth; if you like vikings; or if you like both, then you’ll definitely want to give this one a try.  It’s part of a series called Tomes of the Dead.  They’ve got a novel by Paul Finch in the lineup, so I’m going to at least have to try that one.  I have yet to read anything bad by him.  There are several others in the lineup that should appeal to fans of heroic fantasy.  Abaddon Books is a British publisher, and from what I can tell a subsidiary of Solaris Books.  Seems like our friends on the other side of the pond are publishing some good stuff.

Vikings and Werewolves and Loki

M. D. Lachlan
Pyr, 355 p., $16

If you like Vikings, werewolves, or Norse mythology, then this is the book for you.  

Wolfsangel opens with a bloody Viking raid on a small Anglo-Saxon settlement.  Authun, the king leading the raid, gives his men orders to kill everyone except the children.  He’s looking for a prophesied male infant, one supposed to have been stolen from the gods.  If he takes the child, the boy will grow up to lead his people to glory, or so he believes.  What he ends up with are two infants, twin brothers.  Not knowing which one is the one he wants, he takes them both along with their mother.  He leaves his men to die.

It gets darker from there.

Authun takes his prisoners to the witches who first told him the prophecy.  They aren’t nice ladies.  They are pure evil, although to Lachlan’s credit, their evil is not without motivation.  Several layers of motivation, in fact.  The witches keep the woman and one of the boys.  Authun returns home with the other.

Skip ahead a few years.  The child Authun ended up with,Vali, spends his youth as a hostage in the court of Forkbeard, an allied king.  Vali is betrothed to Forkbeard’s daughter, who is still a child.  He’s in love with a farm girl, Adisla.  His brother, Feileg, was sent by the witches to be raised by beserkers until a certain age, at which time he was abandoned.  He was then raised by a lone man who dressed as a wolf.  Mom is still a prisoner of the witches.

Things begin to come together when Vali is sent to prove his manhood and worthiness by capturing a wolf-man who is terrorizing travelers.  Of course the wolf man is Feilig.  If he fails, the Forkbeard will sacrifice Adisla to Odin.

This sets off a chain of events to fulfill a prophecy concerning Odin, Loki, and the twins.  One of  them will become a notorious wolf.  Fenris.

Lachlan could have brought the werewolf into the story much earlier than he does.  Instead he chose to wait, building the tension and the growing horror of what’s happening to one of the boys, now young men.  The transformation isn’t instantaneous but evolves over a period of time.  I found this to be an effective approach.

This is a complex novel of multiple layers filled with betrayals, forbidden love, and fate.  I’m not sure I could summarize it more effectively if I tried to give more detail.  It can’t simply be read as an adventure story because there are too many characters with hidden agendas and your understanding of things will change by the time you finish the book.  That’s no reason of course to not read it.  Just don’t expect light bedtime reading.  You need to pay attention, so make sure you’re alert.

This is an extremely dark and, as the blurb from Joe Abercrombie on the front cover says, savage book.  Don’t read it if you’re squeamish.  Of course, if you read this blog, you probably aren’t squeamish.  It’s the first in a series.  I’m curious to see where it goes.

The Last Kingdom

The Last Kingdom
Bernard Cornwell
Harper, 333 p., $14.99

I loved this book.  It had it all.  Shield walls, battles, invasions, treachery, betrayal, individual combat, naval battles, storms at sea.  This is the first of the Saxon Novels, and the first book by Cornwell I’ve read.  It won’t be the last. 

The story revolves around a boy named Uhtred, who is the son of an earl on the northern coast of England in the ninth century.  Shortly after his tenth birthday, the Danes decided to settle in England.  All of England.  And they are not invited, nor are they welcome.  After his older brother is killed on a scouting mission, Uhtred becomes the heir, and his father begins to take an interest in him, which means taking him along on military campaigns as part of his education in his noble responsibilities.  After his father is killed in a battle, Uhtred is captured by one of the Danish chieftains, Ragnar.  Ragnar adopts Uhtred as a son.  Meanwhile his uncle, who was left watching the castle, has decided to become the earl and tries to have Uhtred killed. 

Over half the book is devoted to Uhtred’s growing up, and in comparison to the latter part of the book, when Uhtred is a grown warrior, this part is slow.  That’s not to say it isn’t interesting, but a lot of what’s happening here is character development and setting up a blood feud that will carry over into the next book and maybe the ones following.  As one character says, and I’m paraphrasing here, feuds go on forever. It’s definitely worth investing time in. We get an education along with Uhtred in both English ways and Danish culture.  This makes the book richer and more complex.

There were times when I was reminded of Robert Low’s The Whale Road, although the books are quite different in focus and tone.  Both concern a boy growing to manhood in a warrior culture that is at odds with Christianity, who by the end of the book is a respected leader.  But that’s about where the similarities end.  The Whale Road read more like a fantasy quest novel than, well, much of the fantasy I’ve read.  The gods, dragons, Valkyries and  such were all real to the characters in both books, and Low does a masterful job of making that worldview seem real to the reader.  Cornwell on the other hand, while not ignoring the religious differences between the cultures and even stressing them at times, fails to make the gods as real as they are in The Whale Road.  Instead, reading The Last Kingdom made me feel like I was reading history by a witness, which was the intent.

Not only did I feel like I was reading history, I wanted to go and read history before I was done.  In my mind, this is one of the characteristics of a successful historical novel.  This is a time period I don’t know much about.  There were no films for my high school history football coach teacher to show, so we didn’t really cover it.

The last kingdom of the title is the kingdom of Alfred the Great, who is the sole English king left long before he appears on stage.  Well, the sole English king who isn’t a lackey for the Danes at any rate.  Uhtred ends up in his service after having to leave Danish lands under really bad circumstances.  And I mean really, really bad circumstances.  As in an escalation of that blood feud I mentioned.  The latter part of the book concerns Uhtred becoming a trusted leader in Alfred’s army.  You can probably guess that the Danes are still hanging around causing trouble at the end of the book.  Cornwell is taking his time and not rushing through the events that helped shape English history.

I may not know as much as I’d like about this time period, but I’m going to address that before I read the next book.  Which will be soon.