Published: August 1st 2013 by Jo Fletcher Books
Format: Hardcover, 352 pages
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To Ulfar Thormodsson, the Viking town of Stenvik is the penultimate stop on a long journey in this riveting adventure of clashing Viking powers. Tasked with looking after his cousin after disgracing his father, he has traveled the world and now only wants to go home.
Stenvik is different: it contains the beautiful and tragic Lilja, who immediately captures Ulfar’s heart-–but Stenvik is also home to some very deadly men, who could break Ulfar in an instant.
King Olav is marching on Stenvik from the East, determined to bring the White Christ to the masses at the point of his sword, and a host of bloodthirsty raiders led by a mysterious woman are sailing from the north.
But Ulfar is about to learn that his enemies are not all outside the walls.
The things I know about Viking can be summed by Marvel comics and the two Thor movies. Basically, nothing.
Swords of Good Men caught my eye because, at the time, I hadn’t heard of any other honest-to-goodness Viking-esque books around. It’s a brilliant, fast-paced début that I can see a lot of readers liking, and although there is definite room for improvement, I think Snorri Kristjansson brings something amazing to the tapestry of modern fantasy fiction.
Ulfar Thormodsson has been in exile for two years, and he’s one town away from being able to return home. Get into Stenvik, make a speech, get the chieftain to like him and he’s home in heartbeat. Easy, right? But Stenvik hides dangerous secrets and Ulfar’s future looks less certain from the moment he enters its gates.
Under usual circumstances I’d say there are too many points of view throughout this book, but the author makes it work. Every character allows us to view other facets of the dangers about to descend onto Stenvik. The length of time readers spend with the characters varies from a few pages to a only a few paragraphs. The book is paced superbly because of this, but it does get frustrating because sometimes readers will be utterly engrossed with what’s happening with one character only to be wrenched away.
I think it’s an exceptionally clever way to tell a story, but it has the affect of distancing readers from the characters, especially the minor ones. I feel like I know some of them well, such as Ulfar; Audun the blacksmith of Stenvik, and King Olav’s squire Finn, but there are plenty of other characters for whom I have very little understanding and even less sympathy. In particular, Geiri and Oraekja seemed particularly ill-drawn and only useful because of their impact on other characters.
The world that Kristjansson has created is vivid and rich, and although I cannot comment on how well he has captured Norse mythology, I enjoyed every moment that the story hinted at the customs, beliefs and rituals of the Vikings. The gods and goddess described in the book are elemental and largely unknowable. The author’s Loki, Freya and Thor bare little resemblance to their comic book counterparts, expect in the broadest of ways, and I liked this a lot. I was afraid I’d be imagining them as the comic/movie characters, but Kristjansson does a great job at realising them without associating them with their representations in modern media.
Swords of Good Men is ultimately about how the people of Stenvik defend themselves against the dangers that beset them. Everything leads up to the epic 100+ page battle at the end of the book, which is gory and bloody and violent but at the same time somewhat poetic and darkly beautiful. It’s vividly told and I could imagine every step clearly, from the surprise of the attackers when Stenvik’s people had a few tricks up their sleeves, to the defender’s utter desperation at the end of the long siege.
There’s a fondness to the way Kristjansson describes the process of building and defending the fortress at Stenvik, the sword-making techniques that Audun uses, and the fighting techniques of the Northern raiders. I think these little details are what make the book exceptional – a broad, sweeping fantasy is fine but it’s the underlying humanity of the story that will capture hearts and imaginations.
You know those books where you get home from work, and are insanely excited to sit down and start reading again? Those books that haunt you while you’re not reading them? Swords of Good Men is one of those books – the events, characters and world will stay with you whenever you’re not reading. A perfect book to pick up if all your fantasy fiction reads have started to feel like variations of the same book.