Friday, June 29, 2007

Viking Warrior

Our book today is Judson Roberts' "Viking Warrior," book one in a projected series of 9th Century Viking tales called 'The Strongbow Saga.'

The book can be found in the 'Teen Fiction' section of your local Barnes & Noble, although exactly WHY that is so mystifies us here at Stevereads. "Viking Warrior" features a young protagonist (teenage slave Halfdan, who circumstances not only free but arm with the great bow of the series' title), yes, but by that yardstick alone "Catcher in the Rye" would be shelved in 'Teen Fiction' ... and many other items on the Western canon also.

Certainly there's no simplicity in Roberts' story of a young slave in 9th Century Denmark: Halfdan's status as a non-person is subtley, sophisticatedly handled, and the personalities of all the characters, young and old alike, are rendered with a very satisfying complexity. Roberts has worked out a diction for his characters that's the perfect blend of contemporary speech, Icelandic sagas, and Prince Valiant:

"I woke up [one character says] and felt the need to empty my water, and possibly more, besides. I walked through the byre, intending to go out to the privy, but before I stepped out of the shadows of the byre doorway, I heard voices outside and stopped. After a time, I saw them - dark shapes of men hiding in the edge of the woods behind the privy. Had they not carelessly revewaled their position, no doubt I would be dead now, lying in a pool of piss and blood. I watched for a while. After a time, one of them stepped out into the open and waved his arm, as if to signal someone at the other end of the longhouse. Though there's no moon, I could see light from the stars glinting on his helm and spearpoint and could tell that he carried a shield. We are surrounded by armed men."

The book isn't all swash and buckle, however, not at all; one of its most marked characteristics is the strength of its female characters. Here a woman in his village tells Halfdan of the time she told her father she would only marry a man she loved:

"I remember clearly the evening that I announced my intention to Father. He'd been talking at dinner of a chieftain who lived on the island of Fyn, and how he was looking for a wife. I expected Father to react with rage, for he was prone to great fits of anger whenever someone disobeyed his will, and I knew that arranging my marriage to form an alliance was a thing he could use to great advantage. That night was not the first time Father had speculated aloud on who might prove an advantageous match for me. Instead of anger, though, a sad expression crossed his face. Then he clasped my hands between his, kissed my forehead, and gave me his blessing. 'On this matter,' he told me, 'you should indeed follow your heart.' I think he spoke so because he regretted that he had not followed his. Thus far, my heart has not spoken, so I am not wed."

The book's plot pivots around the murder of Halfdan's beloved brother and Halfdan's vow to avenge the crime. The second half of "Viking Warrior" is fairly drenched in blood and violence, and Roberts wades in it up to his knees, gleefully sparing the reader nothing of the gore and carnage. Viking Age Denmark was a violent place, and Halfdan's consummate skill with his heavy bow certainly makes him a part of that world. The narrative of his escape from the massacre that claims his brother's life is page-turningly thrilling, and the overall structure of a classic revenge-plot is always satisfying.

But it's the quieter, more human moments that give the book its real charm. Roberts brings alive the concepts of his time by bringing to life the people who live them every day, and that's the quintessential historical novelist's trick.

Take the moment when Halfdan's brother proposes a toast to him in front of all assembled, wishing him a happy birthday. Halfdan has only recently been freed, and the cheers shock him:

"This time I barely heard the cheers that echoed round the hall. I was stunned. As a thrall, I'd never counted my existence over a greater period than one day to the next. Unlike free men and women, slaves do not come of age. The birth months of property are not celebrated. From force of habit, I'd thought no differently since I'd been freed."

"Viking Warrior" ends way too soon, and we here at Stevereads had no sooner finished it than we were dispatching a pale, sleekit, timrous, cowerin' intern to buy the next volume, "Dragons from the Sea" (at their own expense, naturally). We'll report on it in due time, but judging from this debut, we doubt we'll be disappointed.

But maybe that's just the 'teen' in us talking ...


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