19 April, 2011

The Whale Road, by Robert Low. Book review

Harper Collins, 2007. ISBN 978-0-00-721530-0. 334 pages

The Whale Road follows the adventures of a band of Norse mercenaries in 964/965 AD in Scandinavia, Russia and the Ukraine, set against the backdrop of the emerging Rus kingdoms around Kiev. The historical figures Sviatoslav of the Rus and his sons Yaropolk and Vladimir have walk-on parts. Harald Bluetooth of Norway and Denmark is an important off-stage presence, and Attila the Hun – a historical figure from 500 years earlier – is the subject of the heroes’ quest. The legendary Volsungs also feature. All the main characters are fictional.

Brought up on his uncle’s farm in Norway, Orm Ruriksson knows his father only as a name, until a threat from the uncle brings Orm’s father home to take vengeance and to sweep Orm away to a new life as a warrior of the Oathsworn. Sworn to each other and to their formidable leader Einar the Black, the Oathsworn are a verjazi band, Norse mercenaries who travel and fight for pay. This time they are on a quest for a rune-inscribed sword and the legendary hoard of Attila the Hun, trying to keep one step ahead of rivals and ex-employers who are also seeking the same treasures. The trail will lead them across the wild oceans and deep into the Russian steppes to face battle and treachery and dark magic – and the inexorable doom woven by a broken oath.

As the author says in his ‘Note on the history’, this is “...a saga, to be read around the fire against the lurking dark.” It has classic saga ingredients – a sword engraved with runes that has magical symbolism in two religions, a beautiful woman with a mysterious link to the Otherworld, a mountain forge of immense antiquity, a long-lost treasure hoard, desperate battles in far-off lands and epic sea voyages through storm and tempest. It also has something of the feel of the Icelandic sagas beyond the adventure, partly from the prose style and partly because of the sense of grim and implacable fate closing in as a result of the characters’ own choices and the unyielding demands of oath and obligation. The language is laconic, sprinkled with occasional vivid phrases reminiscent of Norse kennings, e.g. “...[the ship] leaped like a goosed goodwife”, “windows comfort-yellow with light”, “crow-wing hair”. The title of the novel itself is a classic Norse kenning – the whale road is the open ocean. Dialogue is terse and lively, liberally laced with black humour and Scots or Norse dialect terms. In keeping with the hard-drinking, hard-fighting life of the main characters, modern four-letter words are frequent; readers who are offended by words such as f**k and c**t may like to consider themselves warned.

The book is narrated throughout in first person by Orm. I often dislike first-person narratives, as the reader sees only the narrator’s point of view, but fortunately Orm is intelligent and interested in working out hidden information and in trying to understand other people’s motivations.

The plot is non-stop action, with plenty of casual violence (the “Glasgow kiss” makes an appearance under another name), gory battle scenes and gruesome ways to die. As one might expect from the subject matter, it’s a dangerous novel to be a character in. The Whale Road captures the precarious nature of life as a mercenary warrior, forever poised between the possibility of riches beyond the dreams of avarice and the (much more likely) possibility of an unpleasant death. It is a little surprising that Orm, an inexperienced youth of 15, fits into this tough, ruthless band with apparent ease, although this might be explained by Orm’s ability to read Latin (which turns out to be a skill of considerable use to the fearsome Einar) and his father’s status as a respected member of the group.

A strong sense of the supernatural is woven through the narrative. Storms are sent by angry gods, a lost comrade has to be honoured by a sacrifice, and who else would emerge from an abandoned mine under a mountain but an angry black dwarf wielding a hammer (a scene that still makes me laugh weeks after reading it)? For the most part the supernatural exists in the minds of the characters; the exception seems to be the mysterious and beautiful Hild with her aura of evil spirits, dark magic and supernatural link to the mysterious treasure hoard.

A useful map at the front of the book and a list of place names with their modern equivalents at the back is helpful for following the Oathsworn on their epic journeys, and a ‘Note on the history’ gives a brief summary of the historical background to the tale. There is no glossary for the colourful Norse terms; I recognised most of them and those that were new to me were clear from the context, but I have a long-standing interest in Norse history. Readers who are not familiar with the period may find the Norse glossary on the author’s website useful.

Gripping saga of epic journeys by land and sea, hard-fought battles and the dark power of oaths, as a band of Norse mercenary warriors seek a legendary sword and a long-lost hoard of cursed silver in tenth-century Scandinavia and Russia.


Annis said...

Glad you liked this one, Carla- I thoroughly enjoyed the "Oathsworn" series. I feel that Robert Low really captures the saga sensibility and does a particularly good job of weaving religious beliefs and observances seamlessly into the narrative so that they become just a natural part of the characters' lives and attitudes.

Your use of the term "verjazi" is pretty apt too. There is a strong Rus connection as the series progresses and the Oathsworn take the almost obligatory Viking road to Miklagard.

Rick said...

“...[the ship] leaped like a goosed goodwife”

Gotta like that line!

And I get the impression that the author had the good sense to reserve 'Anglo-Saxon' words to their literal meaning, not the figurative usages that probably only became common during WW II.

I'm not a huge fan of 'the Northern thing,' but it sounds as if it is done very well here.

Carla said...

Annis - yes, I was impressed. You're right about the religious beliefs and rituals being part and parcel of the characters' behaviour. I think that's one of the aspects that contributes to the saga feeling; it's clear that this is a different society with different beliefs and norms. Like whichever Icelandic settler it was who threw the pillars of his hall-seat overboard when approaching the coast so that Thor would guide them ashore and show him where to land and establish his steading - it was just the (or at least, an) accepted way of doing things. I shall look forward to the rest of the series.

Rick - Yes, that's why I quoted it :-) I thought it was a great line. The writing style is full of them. Re the 'Anglo-Saxon' words, some (f- in particular) are used as expletives as well as literally.

Rick said...

Well, using those words as expletives is probably legit. (Or at least a legitimate cheat!) And in spite of my original screed I could be forgiving even of 'all effed up' or similar constructions, if not grossly overdone.

A connection to the Rus is surely telegraphed (at least to history geeks) by the patronymic Ruriksson.

Carla said...

I don't think there's an explicit connection with the (legendary?) founder of Kiev. Rurik appears in the novel and he certainly isn't a major political leader. If there is a connection it's a subtle one, perhaps, as you say, telegraphing a suggestion that events are going to play out in the eastern sphere of Norse influence. I may be wrong though; maybe Orm is going to turn out to have distinguished family connections as the series develops.
Re your earlier comment; yes 'the Northern thing' is done very well here.