Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson
I’ve had my eye on this book for a while, and finally decided to buy it whilst I was in York (or ‘Jorvik’!) for the weekend. After visiting the castles and dungeons and museums (and, of course, the Viking Centre) I was very much in the mood for reading something along these lines.
Swords of Good Men, book one of Snorri Kristjansson’s Valhalla saga, is a fairly fun bit of reading, once you become accustomed to the unusual format. The plot is quite nicely self-contained and focused: it takes place over the course of a few days, and depicts an attack on the Scandinavian village of Stenvik. We witness the battles, and the events leading up to them, from the point of view of various characters on different sides of the attack. The style and manner of the story are generally effective, but they also have quite a few drawbacks.
Each chapter is split into short POV segments, and continually flits about between various characters. You can read a couple of pages focusing on one character, then three paragraphs on another, followed by another page from the point of view of a completely different one. This works great for the most part as it makes for a really fast-paced read, and gives a good sense of chaos during the battle segments. A very large portion of the book is focused on fighting, and the style paints a holistic view of the conflict and helps us understand all aspects of the battle, giving it an almost cinematic feel.
However, this structure also makes the non-action segments feel a little disjointed, and doesn’t really allow much opportunity to explore any of the characters in much detail. As a result, it’s difficult to really get on-side with any of the characters, since we don’t know them well enough to empathise. The author’s prose is solid but not spectacular – which, to be fair, contributes well to the gritty atmosphere of the entire novel – and unfortunately many of the characters lack depth as a result of minimal page time and regularly shifting POVs.
Criticisms aside, Swords of Good Men is a decent, bloody, action-filled fictional Viking story. It has plenty of interesting story elements: Old Gods and superstition, the White Christ and black magic, berserkers and assassins, raiders and outlaws, healers and poisoners, blood and longships . . . you get the picture. And while I won’t be rushing out to buy the second in the Valhalla saga, Blood Will Follow, I’ll probably check it out at some point in the future, if only to see what happens in the aftermath of the somewhat shocking ending.