27 May, 2012

The Prow Beast, by Robert Low. Book review

Fourth in the Oathsworn series, following The Whale Road (reviewed here earlier), The Wolf Sea (reviewed here earlier) and The White Raven (reviewed here earlier), The Prow Beast is set in Scandinavia and what is now Poland in 975-976. Olaf Tryggvason (Crowbone), later King of Norway, Queen Sigrith of Sweden and Styrbjorn, nephew of King Erik of Sweden, are historical (or at least, saga) figures. All the main characters are fictional.

After their quest for the cursed treasure of Attila’s tomb (recounted in the first three books, particularly The Whale Road and The White Raven), Orm and the Oathsworn have achieved fame across the Norse world. Orm has married and is now a man of consequence, presiding over his jarl’s hall and lands at Hestreng in newly unified Sweden. Orm is entrusted with fostering Koll, the young son of Jarl Brand, and also with escorting Queen Sigrith, wife of King Erik the Victorious of Sweden, home to Uppsala. But although fame is the dream of every Norse warrior, it is the gift of Odin and carries a characteristically bitter price. When old enemies come to Hestreng with fire and sword, Orm and the Oathsworn must take ship again, following the ‘prow beast’ to revenge, violence and heartbreak.

Like its three predecessors, The Prow Beast is a larger-than-life tale, “a saga to be told around the fire against the closing dark”, as the author puts it. Like the others, it captures some of the grim grandeur of the Norse sagas (not an easy feat), with men who recognise their harsh fate and go out to meet it with courage and black humour. The series has been getting steadily darker in tone since the first book, no doubt reflecting Orm’s development from youth to battle-hardened jarl, and The Prow Beast is darker yet. The Oathsworn have always been hard and ruthless men; in The Prow Beast their savagery reaches a new depth. Orm himself has become a doom-laden, brooding figure, reminiscent of the fearsome Einar the Black in The Whale Road (and reminding me of Skarp-Hedin as his fate closes around him in Njal’s Saga). There is a tremendous sense of authenticity about the pagan Norse culture, not just the gods and rituals but also the world-view of inescapable fate and ‘fair fame’, that gives the Oathsworn series a feeling of depth underlying the adventures. The writing style reinforces this, with some of the laconic style of the sagas and liberally sprinkled with vivid imagery reminiscent of Norse kennings.

Characterisation is as vivid as ever, and readers will be pleased to see the return of old friends from the previous books, such as Finn Horsehead from Skane who fears nothing (in The Prow Beast the reader finds out why), giant Botolf who can be alternately genial and ferocious, Red Njal with his granny’s endless store of proverbial wisdom (I can’t help thinking that Red Njal’s granny could have written most of the Havamal [‘Sayings of the High One’]), and young Olaf Crowbone with his uncanny insights and fund of sharp stories. Not everyone will make it to the end (though any reader familiar with the previous three books will already have guessed this). The ending itself has a satisfying bleakness that fits well with what has gone before. Whether this really is the end or whether there is scope for further adventures for the remaining Oathsworn is hard to tell – certainly Olaf Crowbone’s story has much further to run to catch up with his historical career.

A useful map at the front helps readers unfamiliar with the geography of the Baltic and eastern Europe to follow the Oathsworn’s journey, and a historical note at the back sets out some of the underlying history. I have a nagging feeling that I have read something very similar to the episode of Queen Sigrith and Botolf somewhere before, so maybe that also occurs in one of the sagas, although it isn’t explicitly identified as such in the historical note.

Dark, gripping adventure with a strong sense of pagan Norse culture, following the adventures of a Norse warrior band in the tenth century.

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