Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson

July 26, 2013

 Ulfar Thormodsson has spent two years travelling as envoy and bodyguard to his high-born cousin. They have one last stop – the walled town of Stenvik – before they can finally go home.

Audun Arngrimsson works his forge and lives a secretive, solitary life. No one knows about his past, and he’d like to keep it that way. But the Old Gods have other ideas.

The factions within Stenvik are about to come to blows, but a far bigger battle is approaching: a young king is bringing the White Christ at point of sword and edge of blade. And on the horizon are the sails of another, more mysterious enemy… 

There is a 2009 film called Vahalla Rising by Nicholas Winding Refn that stars the uber-talented Mads Mikkelsen. It follows the journeys of a Viking and explores the stark, often brutal, time which he lived. Swords of Good Men, the latest publication from Jo Fletcher Books, covers similar thematic territory but goes that little bit further. Imagine a novel that offers insight into the nature of a proud warrior culture and how tribes managed on a day-to-day basis.

The remote settlement of Stenvik is a hard place to survive, in fact, it’s positively Darwinian. The strong prosper and the weak suffer the consequences. Beset on all sides by forces that want to take control, the village chieftain also has to contend with internal power struggles. As events swiftly begin to spiral out of control, conflict is inevitable.

The writing on display has an evocative air. Be warned though, things get pretty damn graphic as the plot moves forward. There is a wonderfully savage chaos in the action scenes. Unsurprisingly, when violence does erupt, it is often swift and brutal. I know that war is a terrible thing, but I think the writing tapped directly into that primal bloodlust that resides somewhere in the dark recesses of my brain. There was part of me cheering when the Viking berserkers, The Twenty, arrived. When it comes to the battles, there is something wonderfully uncomplicated about it all. There is no thought required only action, the rules are staggeringly simple: kill or be killed.

As an effective counterpoint to all the mayhem of the battlefield, it was a nice surprise to discover that the novel also contains a plethora of more introspective moments. When characters are not engaged in trying to chop bits off of one another they ponder their existence. How do they fit into the grand scheme of things? What is it that makes someone good or bad? Audun Arngrimsson, the blacksmith, is a good example of this duality. He is a hard-working, practical man. Initially, he appears content just to mind his own business, keep to himself and avoid any undue attention. When pushed to extremes however, the other side of his nature is revealed. The internal conflict that exists within Audun perfectly illustrates the internal conflict that exists within all warriors, longing for peace but relishing the unrestrained madness that comes only during war.

The other character I really enjoyed was the Viking captain, Eigill Jotunn. Anyone who knows a little Norse mythology will not be shocked to discover he is described as a huge, mountain of a man. The vicious meeting between Audun and Egill was the chaotic highlight of the novel for me.

The arrival of the White Christ, and Christianity, also plays an important part in the narrative. Many generations of tradition and the Old Gods have suddenly been set aside for a new religion. Entire communities have been forced to change their beliefs or face the consequences. When these differing theologies come crashing together like this, the results are as you would expect, bloody.

The fantasy elements are handled very delicately. It’s only really in the final few chapters where these move to the fore. Kristjansson offers a suggestion of the fantastical at certain points throughout the narrative, but leaves these open to interpretation. I can imagine that this is going to prompt some vigorous reader debate. Some will undoubtedly relish the ambiguity in the writing, while others will probably loathe it.  Personally, I rather enjoyed this subtle approach.

I’ve been very lucky with my reading so far in 2013. Once again, I find myself in the situation where another debut novel has blown me away. The writing is so self-assured. I was gripped from beginning to end, it feels like Kristjansson has been producing books like this for years. I’m a little bit in awe, but rest assured I’ll be keeping an eye out for this author’s next novel.

As an aside, I discovered that listening to the soundtrack for Game of Thrones season three while reading Swords of Good Men is a perfect accompaniment. It’s certainly stirring stuff, and fits with remarkably well with the novels themes.

Swords of Good Men is published by Jo Fletcher Books and is available from 1st August 2013. This is the first book in The Valhalla Saga. I will most definitely be back for more. Highly recommended.

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