18 November, 2011

The Wolf Sea, by Robert Low. Book review

Harper, 2008. ISBN 978-0-00-721533-1. 336 pages.

Sequel to The Whale Road, reviewed here earlier, The Wolf Sea is the second in the series about the Oathsworn, a verjazi band of Norse mercenaries hired for pay, on their quest for a rune-spelled sword and a hoard of cursed silver. This instalment is set in Byzantium, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East in 965/966. Historical figures such as the Byzantine generals Leo Balantes and John Tzimisces (John Red Boots) appear as secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.

Having escaped with their lives and not much else after their quest to find the treasure-tomb of Attila the Hun, young Orm Ruriksson and the remnant of the Oathsworn, now sworn to Orm as their jarl (leader), find themselves in Byzantium with no ship, no money and no plan. Beyond survival, Orm has two concerns; retrieving the precious rune-sword stolen from him by an old enemy, and finding the remainder of the Oathsworn who were left behind in Novgorod when Orm and the others went in search of Attila’s tomb. Going into partnership with Radoslav, a Slav-Norse trader who has a ship but no crew, gives Orm and the Oathsworn an opportunity to start the first task, and so begins a chase through the islands of the Mediterranean and the deserts of the Holy Land. Amid the wars between the Byzantines and the Arabs, the Oathsworn relentlessly pursue their stolen sword – and finally discover the fate of their lost comrades.

Like its predecessor, The Wolf Sea is an action-packed tale of violence and intrigue, full of gory battle scenes, gruesome deaths and black magic. If anything, the tone is even darker than The Whale Road. Orm is finding the responsibility of leadership a heavy burden, and is haunted by dark dreams of betrayal and loss. Black humour leavens the grim events, from the warrior losing an arm in battle and saying, “See if you can find the hand. I had a ring I liked”, to the Norseman told that Islam will allow him four wives but no alcohol and trying to work out if this is an acceptable deal. Narrated in first person by Orm, the laconic prose style is reminiscent of the Norse sagas, terse but sprinkled with vivid images recalling Norse kennings, e.g. bad news arrives “like a mouse tumbling from rafter into ale horn”, a beefy warrior is described as “he had muscles on his eyelids.” The characters display the openness to new lands and customs that seems to have been a characteristic of the historical Norse travellers. They may refer disparagingly to foreigners as “goat-botherers” (and more, ahem, colourful variations; there is no shortage of modern expletives), but they quickly develop a liking for exotic spices and learn to cook Arab food.

Some of the characters are familiar from The Whale Road. Orm himself, intelligent as ever and now older than his years; mystical Sighvat with his store of folklore and two tame ravens; brawny Finn Horsehead. New characters are introduced (the attrition rate in the Oathsworn requires it), of whom the most memorable for me were the Goat Boy, a young Greek boy with a name the Norse can’t pronounce who acts as guide and translator, and the lively Irish monk Brother John. As might be expected for a tale about a hard-bitten warrior band far from home, the cast is almost exclusively male. Apart from dark witchcraft, women are peripheral.

The end is more of a pause in the action, as the Oathsworn still have their search for Attila’s treasure to resolve. Indeed, the plot is almost circular; for all their adventures, Orm and the Oathsworn end in much the same position as they began, no further from returning to Attila’s hoard but not noticeably nearer to it either. It will be interesting to see if the quest for Attila’s hoard is resolved in Book Three (and if so, how).

A historical note summarises the historical background and the major events invented by the author, and a map at the front is invaluable for tracing the route of the Oathsworn’s epic journey.

Violent, action-packed military adventure following the grim fortunes of a Norse mercenary band in tenth-century Byzantium and the Middle East.

10 comments:

Constance Brewer said...

Byzantium, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East AND Norse mercenaries? Sign me up. :)

Carla said...

AND Attila the Hun into the bargain :-) If you like adventure and don't mind gore, these are well worth a look. Probably worth starting at the beginning with The Whale Road if you can; although I think these could be read as stand-alones, it's good to follow the saga in the right order.

Gabriele C. said...

Yeah, I should give this a try. I hope the swearing doesn't include to many f-bombs, though, those tend to throw me out of a story; they sound too modern to me (and yes, Mr. Scarrow, I'm looking at you here).

Rick said...

This does sound like fun, for certain values of 'fun'! And surely a dromon or two must show up, given the place and time.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Not as many as Simon Scarrow, though a fair few. I found them less distracting here than in the Cato/Macro novels; not sure if that's a function of the reduced number or of the context, or what. If you do try these, I'll be interested in your thoughts.

Rick - sorry, no, I don't think a dromon appears, at least not by that name. Although Byzantine politics feature in the background, much of the action is in the deserts of the Middle East - more 'ships of the desert' than actual ships :-)

Rick said...

Too bad! I guess I took 'around the eastern Med' as IN the eastern Med.

Carla said...

There's some seaborne derring-do around various islands until they arrive in the Holy Land, but even then most of the action is on land.

Annis said...

Rick, if you want Vikings and dromons, they can both be found in "Odin's Wolves", third in Giles Kristian's "Raven" trilogy, yet another ferociously entertaining Viking series (and quite possibly inspired by Robert Low's Oathsworn).

Carla said...

Thanks Annis - I haven't got to Giles Kristian's series (yet), so thanks for the recommendation.

Rick said...

Thanks, Annis!