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”.
According to the author bio, Snorri Kristjansson is from Iceland but now makes his home in London. I suspect he grew up reading many of the original sagas. They can be pretty dark and fatalistic.
The story concerns the town of Stenvik. It’s about to come under siege. A huge fleet is being gathered in the northwest by guy named Skargrim. He’s taking his orders from the sorceress Skuld. In the town, Ulfar Thormodsson and his cousin have come to pay their respects to the chieftan. It’s there last stop before they can return home from exile.
Meanwhile, King Olaf is marching from the east. He’s converted to Christianity and is on a missionary journey. He’s converting all his lands to his new faith. At swordpoint. (I’ve been a churchgoer all my life, and I can’t recall Jesus ever taking this appproach, nor the Apostle Paul on any on his missionary journeys in the book of Acts. But I digress.)
In the hands of some of the bigger fantasy authors working today (I’m looking at you, George R. R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson), this book would have been two or three times as long. That would not have been an improvement.
Kristjansson doesn’t pad his book with fluff. In less 300 pages, he manages to pack more story in than most writers. Did I mention that Ulfar falls for the woman of one of the most vicious men in Stenvik? Of that a number of people have secrets they’re hiding and/or schemes they’re hatching, like the blacksmith and the healer?
His cast of named characters numbers close to two dozen. While some obviously will have more character development than others, none of them are from central casting. There’s something distinctive about each of them.
He pulls this off by having short sections, many less than a page, in which he focuses on moving things forward. With this many plotlines going, it takes a bit for them to start coming together.
The wait is worth the payoff. Once the siege begins and the combat truly picks up, Kristjansson really shows his stuff. One of the pleasures of reading this part of the novel was seeing what strategic trick one side or the other would come up with. The warriors in this book fight as much with their brains as they do with their swords. The result is a thinking man’s siege.
The battle scenes are choreographed with an eye to detail while still keeping the big picture in focus. You can hear the clang of iron on shield and the screams of the dying, feel the grip of the weapon slick with blood, smell the gore and offal, and experience the fear and betrayal.
The book didn’t go exactly where I was expecting. (I did mention that sagas were dark and fatalistic, didn’t I?) It’s only in the last few pages that you realize that everything that came before is prelude, and the real story is just getting started. I mean that as a compliment.
The subtitle of Swords of Good Men is The Valhalla Saga Book 1. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next installment, Blood Will Follow, which is due out in June (I don’t know if that’s in the US or only the UK). This is one series that will appeal to fans of Martin or Abercrombie.
Jo Fletcher Books is a British imprint. It’s gotten some good press, but this is the first of the line I’ve had a chance to read. If the rest of the line is anywhere near as compelling as Swords of Good Men, I’m going to be reading a lot of Jo Fletcher books.