Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson
Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson, the first book of The Valhalla Saga, is an interesting looks at Vikings in the fantasy genre. The book depicts the historical time frame and place accurately and will be a treat to anyone interested in both historical novels and fantasy. If you like Vikings, it goes without telling that this book should be on your to-read pile. And don’t worry, the fantasy portion is small and doesn’t take anything away from the realistic setting and characters.
The story revolves around Stenvik, a small town, and Ulfar Thormodsson, a young man on his way home after a two-year-long journey. The town becomes the center of a brewing conflict between the religion of the While Christ and the Old Gods. The first part of the book is an introduction into numerous Viewpoints, the two conflicting armies, and the people of Stenvik. All the while we read about the impending attack of a great host a legendary raiders and the advance of a mighty army under the banner of the While Christ, we learn more about a hand-picked cast of characters in Stenvik and seething conflicts between them. The men of Stenvik do not stand as one, but house schemers in their midst that might tip the careful balance of power in one or the other direction.
The long introduction serves one goal and does a good job at it: It enhances the tension. As the reader you know much more than the people of Stenvik through the use of multiple POV-characters. When you look the leader of the raiders, Skargrim, over the shoulder as he stands on top of a cliff and surveys his men, when you see him count his ships or spot more on the horizon, you will see the stakes rise ever higher. You’ll be bound to ask yourself if the brave men of Stenvik even have a chance against such a hardened bunch of warriors.
Most of the second part of the book tells us of the siege of Stenvik and I found this to be extremely interesting. The siege is very well done and seems as realistic as the rest of the book. The fighting is a bloody and dirty as you can imagine, with the scale tipping sometimes in this, sometimes in the other direction. The people of Stenvik fight a desperate battle and you’ll grip the book harder when you follow Ulfar into battle. The tactical maneuvering between the leader of Stenvik and the attackers is something to behold; the defenders make use of clever traps to compensate for the lack of fighters, while the attackers have to navigate through these traps and storm a wall bristling with desperate men and their sharp weapons.
The ending feels a bit lackluster after the barrage of fireworks in the fighting before. Part of it ended too abruptly for my tastes. It is by no means a bad ending, only not just as entertaining as the rest of the book. The ending is one of the few weaknesses of an overall very good book that I enjoyed reading tremendously (after I’d managed to find my way into the story, which – granted – took a few dozen pages).
A bigger weakness were the multiple viewpoints. Not because they weren’t interesting characters, but rather because the protagonist Ulfar disappeared into this sea of characters and only resurfaced briefly. The book feels like it doesn’t have that one important character a reader can bond with, but rather shows a large array of hard men with fire in their blood and steel in their hands. These men manage to suck you in while reading too, but they lack the characteristics that make protagonists so charismatic for a reader. While reading, you might ask yourself who to root for and while you’ll get a hunch in the second half, a sooner answer might have been preferable.
All in all, this was a great book for someone who’s as interested in fantasy as he’s in history. I can only recommend this book to you and I’m certain you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. I’ll be waiting for the next part of the series too, because this book feels like only the beginning of a big fight between the old gods and the new White Christ, with Ulfar trapped somewhere in the middle of it. Swords of Good Men makes me want to read more by Snorri Kristjansson!