DARKNESS FORGED by Matt Larkin (SPFBO 6 FINALIST REVIEW)
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Mythology has always been a rich vein of inspiration for fantasy writing since before the first retelling of Beowulf in some Scandinavian mead hall.
From Thor and Loki in the Avengers, to countless Norse derived worlds in fantasy, mythology has been everything from the spine, through the setting, to the seasoning in the tale.
In adapting or retelling the old legends, authors must make choices between maintaining a fidelity to the myth and making the story accessible and empathic for a contemporary audience. Joanne Harris in The Gospel of Loki gave that master trickster an engaging self-deprecating voice even as he charged through some recognisable myths and rivalries – including a spectacular wedding dress for Thor.
Read on to find out what our team made of Matt Larkin’s choices in his retelling of a rather less famous Norse legend.
Vengeance is Wrought. Darkness is Forged.The greatest crafts on Midgard come from the dvergar realm of Nidavellir. Volund, a gifted smith and once apprentice to the dvergar, escaped their dark realm to find solace in the arms of a valkyrie.
Nine years of respite.
And then she was gone.
Volund will do anything to get her back. But his reputation precedes him, and a cruel king knows the weapons Volund forges can win his wars. Imprisoned in the king’s forge, Volund’s only hope to escape is to find his wife. If he can’t, more than the forge’s darkness will overtake him.
Theo: OK the initial set up seems quite straightforward. A trio of brothers have lost their wives who happen to be Valkyrie and have headed off in pursuit of battles to reap souls from, while the brothers were out on a hunt. They have however left behind their rings which act as homing devices to guide the brothers in following their lost spouses’ diverging trails. The brothers have distinctive skill sets, the warrior, the hunter/tracker and the craftsman/forger.
The prose is archaic in places. Besides the use of many distinctly Norse terms (thankyou kindle dictionary for the translations) to add character, there is a weighty almost biblical tone to the language with “aught” and “naught” and “unto” and “nigh” cropping up often enough to be noticeable.
Beth: I have to be honest, the archaic language really got on my nerves. I believe it’s possible to achieve the tone without using words like this.
Filip: The further on I got, the more distracting it was. Rather than add to the verisimilitude of the world, it breaks the immersion.
Theo: The story divides into three strands following each of the brothers as they encounter kingdoms in different kinds of peril. The feel of the piece is very authentically Norse, like Timandra Whitecastle’s Queens of the Wyrd was, but the style of telling so far seems to be aiming more for mythic than novel.
Filip: Authentically Norse captures it well–I have the suspicion that the author’s take on Norse mythology is an attempt (conscious or otherwise) to capture the spirit of that mythology before it was all mixed up with Christian traditions; it’s dark and gritty and cruel, this Midgard Larkin introduces us to.
Julia: While the prose was mostly fluent enough to allow a quick and easy read, I found things that got my hackles up pretty early on. While I have no problem reading grimmest Grimdark, with every topic that involves, the handling of these can be very different. And I didn’t think Darkness Forged handled two topics well at all: Rape and infertility.
Early in there’s plenty of male banter about swapping wives, getting between their legs and so on. As this was just the way the characters are, it didn’t stop me from reading, but it definitely annoyed me. Also if I have to read “ploughing the trench” one more time I’ll go bang my head against a wall.
Beth: I really disliked this too, but I did feel like it was centered on one character, and the others disliked him for it, so there wasn’t an attempt to pass this off as acceptable. I do think there are other ways of portraying a character as contemptible; as I’ve said many times, I’d love to see fantasy move away from using sex/gender in this way.
Nils: Like both of you, the sexism irritated me too. For example there were comments such as:
“Don’t tell me you aren’t keen to pry apart those magnificent thighs of hers, brother, I know I am.”
Which like Beth has mentioned does tend to centre around one brother, and was part of his character’ flaws, and I feel it was also an attempt to add some crude humour, yet nevertheless I found it extremely unpleasant to read and I found myself rolling my eyes in frustration.
Julia: Prose wise there was a ton of Midgard specific vocabulary that was thrown in without any explanation. This wasn’t a problem for me as I have read a lot of stories in the same setting, so I either knew it or could well guess what was talked about. But there’s a lot of specific names or races, which might make it hard going for someone new to it. Here’s a few examples – from just one page!
Berserkir, varulfur, Ás, Aujum, Sviarlanders, Aesir, vaettir, Nidavellir, dvergar
What also annoyed me were a few instances of very modern words, when the rest of the prose is the opposite, with a lot of nigh and naught.
Filip: I struggled with those instances, too. The terminology used presupposes (very much demands) familiarity with Norse mythology, though I choose to believe that’s the author signifying his target audience.
Beth: The cover is quite memorable, it sticks in my mind, but I don’t think it necessarily portrays the story very well? Looking at the image, you wouldn’t think we’re in for a Norse retelling.
Filip: Looking at that cover, I thought this would be a gothic fantasy of another sort entirely.
Nils: Yes Filip! Me too!
Beth: I loved the map, and although accessing maps on a kindle is a pain in the proverbial, I loved how much effort had been put into this one, and I can imagine it looks fantastic in the physical form.
I did eventually get used to all the Norse terms, picking up on their meaning via context, but I’m not used to reading Norse stories at all – in fact I think Queens of the Wyrd is the only other Norse-set book I’ve read(!) and I did feel at a disadvantage. I had the sense that, like Filip said, Larkin was perhaps expecting his readers to be familiar with this world, and so the world building/creating itself felt somewhat skeletal. The bones of what you needed were there, but I had the distinct feeling that were I more used to stories in this setting, I’d have been able to flesh it out better using prior knowledge.
Nils: Personally I didn’t mind the Norse terms as much, I do enjoy looking terms up on Google and gaining further insight, especially as I’m quite interested in Norse Mythology. However that’s most definitely something not every reader is going to want to do, so I feel it would have been helpful if Larkin had either included a glossary or explained the terms in more detail. I feel it’s important for authors to be aware of all their readers, not just the ones they want to aim the book for.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
Theo: Agilaz – the hunter brother – is the most sympathetic, mellowed by fatherhood. Slagfid the warrior has an arrogant machismo style that is less appealing, and Volund in his descent into darkness is certainly not likeable. However, a quick read of the Author’s Note (a fascinating place in most books – well worth inspecting) reveals that Darkness Forged is not simply inspired by or even based on Norse Mythology. It is the actual retelling of a collection of Norse tales about three mythic brothers. To that extent Darkness Forged is more akin to Joanne Harris’s The Gospel of Loki in that it puts fictional flesh on mythical bones.
Perusing the Wikipedia page (Wayland the Smith – Wikipedia) shows that many of the characters’ most repugnant actions (and indeed their greatest triumphs) are lifted straight from the myth rather than being imagined by the author. It would take more research to uncover exactly those places where the myth ended and the author’s imagination begins and to be able to assess the author’s choices. Certainly where Harris made her Loki into an appealing, mischievous, misunderstood (in his own mind at least) protagonist, Larkin’s Volund quickly becomes a dark bitter figure – but one that feels true to the myth. However, it jars when Volund – on discovering a mortally wounded woman – has as his first impulse an urge to rape her and then discard her to drown in a lake. Later, he extorts a promise from her to marry him which again jars. How far those elements are mythical originals or authorial additions I can’t say – but they do emphasise the darkness within Volund.
Julia: I know this is supposed to be a redemption story, and I intellectually know the characters aren’t meant to be likable. That doesn’t change me hating them emotionally, and therefore not care one single iota about what would happen to them.
One felt so two dimensional I didn’t even know why he was in the story at all. One just seems to hit things. And the third is someone I’d rather see dead.
The rather constant small bits about slave girls or thinking about taking women, or even touching a wounded woman’s breast when you’re actually trying to help, that didn’t help at all. Even while this story is meant to show the slow succumbing to darkness, the first such instance happened before he even got to the place that “tortured him and made him into something dark”. And I just can’t feel sympathy for such characters. At times he disgusts himself, which doesn’t really change him one bit anyway. No, the only thing that keeps these men in working order is – their wives? Take their wives and there goes their whole morality and humanity right along with them? What sort of men are those?
Beth: It’s coming back to this use, not just in this story, of women as moral compasses for men and it’s something I’m so tired of reading.
Nils: YES! Very much this, Beth!
Julia: I must confess in my 34 years of life, this is the third book I ever rage quit. Just 36 pages from the end, when it wasn’t about one more sex slave getting the protagonists attention, but the perfectly perfect and only thing that’s keeping him sane – wife. While this alone wouldn’t have been that bad, this on top of the whole rape stuff was the final straw for me.
Smallish spoiler ahead, as it happens earlier in the timeline, but late in the book:
When a usually exceptionally strong and stable woman, the one who is supposedly the light of your life, has tears in their eyes saying “Perhaps I am barren” and you then go and ask: “Is that the truth? Could you not conceive were you so inclined?” I just want to go and punch your teeth out.
Even if in this story that might be the case, then phrase that scene differently, having that information out before that specific dialogue would be nice. There’s a lot of couples out here in the real world, some might even read this book, that can’t conceive, and while that doesn’t mean a topic like that can’t be used in books, I wish it was handled with more sensibility than this. As I can’t set the character in fire, I was tempted to throw the ereader out the window…
Beth: I did warm to Agilaz eventually, but on the whole it was a take it or leave it kind of situation. I do agree with Julia that there was rather a lot of elements that were just handled so badly.
It’s clear Larkin has done a great deal of research into the various Norse myths, and that is commendable. Piecing together so many tales and scraps into something more cohesive. But I’d have loved to have seen a challenge to this retelling.
Stories that confront darkness and evil, inner conflicts of those who have been broken by circumstance, difficult times of wars and betrayals, are naturally going to make quite dark and grim reading. But there has to be something about telling that story that makes it enjoyable. There has to be something within all that, that the reader is striving for. I did find that with Agilaz, in that I hoped he could keep his son safe, and I hoped he would find a way to be with his wife despite her oaths and nature.
Unfortunately Volund’s part of this story made the book so difficult and unpleasant to read. I wanted to be able to find the interest in chartering his descent into villainy, that his very method of attempting to get back to his wife is the very thing that lost her to him; but the portrayal of his actions was all just a little too much and, I am sorry to say, I just didn’t enjoy the story because of it. Larkin does take care to vilify Volund’s actions and emotions. Volund expresses a great deal of fear, uncontrol, and loathing of himself and what he’s becoming. I did feel that Larkin attempted to create a more human turmoil within this character, but in this instance, most likely for personal reasons, it was a turmoil I didn’t enjoy following.
Julia: Yes Beth! That’s what I was trying to say – the descent into darkness, just didn’t work for me. Look at our other finalist, Black Stone Heart, with a similar theme. There we also have a character on the slippery slope, and going down, down, down into darkness. But there I felt it was well done, and I did care for the character(s), even if I was repulsed by their actions. In Darkness Forged I didn’t care either way. I didn’t even want for them to fail, I just wanted to be done with the story.
Beth: I mean, I didn’t much care for that portrayal either, but I guess that’s small compensation for Larkin, sorry!
Filip: I wonder how much leeway to give Larkin, knowing his aim with Darkness Forged is to retell the Poetic Edda’s “The lay of Völund”. On ambition alone, I commend him; but the execution raises a number of questions.
The trouble with any prose retelling of a mythological poem has to do with the allowances of these two distinct forms. Poetry is evocative, it is sparse and every word masterfully, painstakingly crafted. Prose is an altogether different beast, and all of us who read a lot of fantasy have certain generic expectations that Darkness Forged doesn’t meet halfway. There is no playing off against the conventions of these two genres, merely a gluing together of their differing elements, which did not work for me.
A bone I have to pick with this novel–and here be Spoilers!–has to do with the way in which the three valkyries come to be with our three princely brothers. The agency of these valkyries is suppressed for the sake of Volund and his brothers; Volund, who saves his would-be wife and, upon receiving from her a promise to do as he wishes, asks her to marry him. The other two valkyries choose to stay, yes, but for a vague reason that’s partially to do with not wishing to leave their sister alone, and seeking rest from the eternal task that is the collection of glorious souls. This inverts the original moment, which shows the valkyries choosing the three brothers–you can read those opening stanzas here. What troubles me about this is, the valkyries are diminished, the one arguably most important to the story turned to a damsel in distress.
One argument in the author’s favour here might go a little like this: “But this is an important moment for Volund–it shows the darkness within him, and his holding it at bay through this woman, this saviour he unknowingly saves” (here I refer to the point Theo brought up about Volund’s first impulse upon his discovery of the mortally wounded valkyrie). To this, I would respond with a question: Are we not beyond using female characters as mere propellers to male character arcs?
Nils: And Filip sums that point up perfectly! I don’t really have a lot to add to what has already been said, other than I found the characters utterly loathsome to follow. I didn’t care to read about Volund or Slagfid at all, they are vile figures and they commit vile deeds. Like Beth, the only character who vaguely interested me was Agilaz and that was only because of the story arc with his son. One would argue out of all the Norse mythological tales and figures to retell, why choose these three brothers who are ultimately so unlikeable? If Larkin wasn’t going to challenge or throw these characters into a new light, then I sort of failed to see the point?
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
Theo: Once I understood this as a collection of Norse tales gathered into a book, the plot – such as it is – makes better sense. Three brothers are abandoned by their Valkyrie wives and go on quests in different directions to try and find them again. The relatively short chapters following each brother with occasional flash backs into Volund’s forging as smith, make this an easy enough read as a narrative, though the content does generate concerns.
Julia: I quite liked the constant jumps between three time periods. The way they were interwoven worked really well and added a lot of mystery to the story!
The different plots for the different brothers felt very meandering a lot of the time. Not very unusual for Norse myths, so I didn’t mind the little plot progression, I just didn’t find most of them really engaging.
Beth: The fast paced plot, never staying too long in any given place, makes a lot more sense after the Author Note, as Theo says above; it did take some getting used to though. I did find myself able to read through the book quite quickly, the jumping nature of the plot meant that, to be fair, there weren’t any instances where the story dragged. I did find myself having to put the book down and start reading something different as it wasn’t helping my mental state.
Nils: I took a long break and had to come back to this book later on. With our world being as awful as it is right now, to read a story that was extremely bleak and dark, where its world was filled with torture, child abuse, rape… well it darkened my own mood and it became a real struggle for me to continue. I don’t believe a book should ever have that effect on a reader.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
Theo: It’s a well described Norse setting. The main feature seems to be a lot of cruelty especially from the duergar towards Volund, and from Volund to many people. I find myself struggling as to whether to judge Larkin’s creativity here as an author of fiction or a chronicler of myth.
It has got that different style almost of a subgenre in itself.
Susannah Rowntree’s Wind from the Wilderness is Historic fantasy – with phenomenal historic fidelity, Alex Darwin’s Combat Codes is mixed martial arts fantasy, Robert Flemings The Fall of Erlon is Napoleonic inspired musket fantasy, Shadow of A Dead God is hardboiled Noir mystery fantasy. However, while Timandra Whitecastle’s Queens of the Wyrd is Norse fantasy, it is inspired by various Norse legends but is still a novel; while Larkin’s story is more Mythic Fantasy, adhering faithfully to the myth rather than building on it as an inspiration.
Julia: Well, the world isn’t new at all obviously. Having read a lot of different styles and stories set in the same world, it was quite hard not to compare this with other books that draw on similar mythology. And I did think a lot of the other books I read handled it better than Darkness Forged. I think Darkness really works best if you are familiar with a lot of the terminology and world already, and if you aren’t, you have a whole wheelbarrow full of new words and names and can easily get lost between them. Authors like Harris and Whitecastle manage to put a lot more background information in there, which a lot less… let’s call it “name dropping”, and yet avoid infodumps, which will make it much easier to access.
Beth: So Julia has kind of confirmed for me that feeling I had earlier. I found Whitecastle’s Norse world so much easier to imagine in its richness. Theo mentions Rowntree and again, she brought the Middle East to life vividly. As I said earlier, I did have the feeling here that Larkin was expecting me to already have the building blocks in place, so focused entirely on portraying the stories of these mythological figures and not so much their world. Like Theo states, the one overriding element that does come across is the cruelty of this world. It’s a harsh environment where everyone is cruel to each other and betrays each other. Where evil entities twist and distort their hosts and torture twelve year old boys. (Did we need to know his specific age?) It’s an unremittingly bleak world with very little hope for the reader to cling to, if any.
Nils: It’s not an easy world to immerse yourself into is it? It is an extremely harsh world and it simultaneously breeds loathsome people. Yet I have read Queens of the Wyrd by Timandra Whitecastle and more recently The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne which are also set in an extremely grim Norse inspired world, however what sets these books apart is that they contain so much heart. There is friendship, family, companionship, bonds, love and these are the driving force of the characters, they give each other hope, courage, strength, and it makes us care for them and their journey. As everyone above has said, I too realise that Larkin is aiming for an authentic retelling here, so therefore he chose to portray this world and its characters as close to the original myth as possible; however reading for many is all about enjoyment, escapism or seeing a classic tale in a new refreshing light, a reader looks for a sense of hope, something to root for, therefore I still feel this is what Darkness Forged was missing, in a world presented as so cold, where was the warmth?
Beth: I wholeheartedly agree, Nils. Reading is an escapism for so many, and I found myself needing to escape this book. Defeats the object somewhat.
Quotations that resonated with you
Theo: The prose style is a little forced and heavy. Nothing wrong with using naught once or twice, but 43 times in a 186 page book and never using nothing? But once again Larkin has me scurrying to google to discover that nothing first appeared in common usage around 1600 while naught originated from before the 12th century, so once again Larkin’s research might trump my unease.
However, I did like this line about a people taking refuge in a walled town under threat of raids from neighbouring nations..
“One by one they were losing their lands, and their fortress was becoming their prison. A strong one too.”
“Sleep came easy. Easy, but rarely restful.”
Don’t I know it!
Theo: This is a difficult one to judge because there is a lot to admire in Larkin’s fidelity to the myths he wants to depict and myth is in many ways the mother of fantasy.
A key moment in my interest in fantasy was when I was seven or so and a music teacher told us the story behind the song “Avenging and Bright Fall” about Deirdre, Naoise and the Three sons of Usna in the Ulster cycle. Tolkien was inspired by the Finnish hero Kullervo. However, Darkness Forged falls somewhat between the two stools of being a fantasy novel or being a mythical retelling.
Julia: While I can absolutely see potential in the author, I couldn’t stand the characters at all. I didn’t care for any of them, and if halfway through they’d all have ended up on a stake, I’d probably have shrugged and read on without any emotion attached. Near the end I might have been happy to see at least the main protagonist on a pyre. So this one sadly wasn’t my cup of tea at all.
Beth: This book has really raised the issue for me about retellings. I am concerned that all the things I disliked intensely about this book can be shrugged away as “but that’s the source material, that’s what happened in the story.” Do we need to be retelling stories like this? Or in this manner? What did I achieve from reading this that I wouldn’t have simply gleaned by reading the original? I mean, I’m not ever going to read the original as a story about entrapping women into marriages by tricking them, whilst a very common theme in mythologies, is not something I personally feel I need to keep reading in this day and age. Nor stories about raping and torturing boys in order to make them focus better on their crafts. Or raping princesses in order to get revenge upon her father. And we come back full circle to – but it’s the source material. Which is why retellings which challenge source materials and evolve them into something new should be celebrated. Retellings which encourage us to rethink our heritage of stories can push the genre forward, rather than miring it in the same old contentious issues. I truly am very sorry that Darkness Forged in particular has raised this ire, it’s clear Larkin has skill as a storyteller. This was just a story I didn’t want to be told.
Filip: Beth, the issue of retellings doesn’t need to be more complex than this–you’ve captured it perfectly.
Larkin is a writer I could read more of. Despite certain ticks I found distracting and at times annoying, despite the issues of female agency I hope I’ve underlined to our readers, it was a book I read through in a few short hours–the prose flows easily enough. I do wish it were a more pleasant few hours. Too much of the book offered a return to the classic male gaze of yesteryear’s fantasy, too many phrases had an element of the clichéd to them, too much of the brutality, removed from its mythological origins, struck me of excess. A novel is very rarely capable of capturing the power of myth; I do not think this one succeeds.
Nils: Once again I find my thoughts mirroring Beth’s – what exactly was the purpose of retelling such a disturbing story? What did I learn from this which I couldn’t learn by just reading the original myth? Larkin has clearly gone to great lengths in terms of research and in the technicalities of weaving these various stories into one book, that alone is no easy task and is honestly something to be appreciated. However, the kind of Norse, or any retelling or even re-imagining, I look for and enjoy are ones where women are equal to men, where old myths are twisted in new surprising and satisfying ways, where the characters are morally grey, even grimdark, yet hold enough depth, enough heart, to still be likeable. Simply put, this was not the kind of retelling I personally would choose to read.
(to nearest half mark)
Placed 9th in the Hive’s Finalist List.