25 March, 2012

The White Raven, by Robert Low. Book review.

Harper, 2009, ISBN 978-0-00-728798-7. 352 pages.

Third in the Oathsworn series, following The Whale Road (reviewed here earlier) and The Wolf Sea (reviewed here earlier), The White Raven is set in the winter of 972-3 AD, mainly in what is now Russia and the Ukraine. Olaf Tryggvason (later King of Norway), his uncle Sigurd, Vladimir Prince of Novgorod and his uncle Dobrynya are historical figures. All the main characters are fictional.

Orm and the remaining Oathsworn are living on a farmstead in Scandinavia granted them by Jarl Brand, and one of them, Kvasir, has married a capable wife, Thorgunna from the neighbouring farmstead. Orm would like to settle down and earn a reliable living by horse-breeding, but the rest of the Oathsworn are obsessed with returning to Attila’s tomb, deep in the steppes, in search of the hoard of cursed silver that cost many of their comrades their lives (recounted in The Whale Road). When a raid captures Thorgunna’s sister Thordis, the Oathsworn take to the seas again, sailing to Novgorod and trekking across the winter steppes in search of revenge and riches. But they are not the only ones out on the steppe in this bitter winter. Young Prince Vladimir of the Rus wants the treasure to finance his wars against his rival brothers; Brondolf Lambisson wants it to rebuild his dying town of Birka; and the fearsome Amazons, woman warriors of the steppe, are oathsworn to protect the hoard to the death against all comers.

Like its two predecessors, The Whale Road and The Wolf Sea, The White Raven is a larger-than-life adventure, a “saga to be told around the fire”, as the author puts it. On their quest for a hoard of cursed treasure, the Oathsworn encounter monsters (given a poignant modern twist), impossible battles against the odds, the treachery and friendship of princes, and legendary female warriors.

Olaf Tryggvason, nicknamed Crowbone, was the outstanding character for me. A couple of decades later, he was to become a notable king of Norway; here he is an enigma in the shape of a nine-year-old boy with an uncanny wisdom beyond his years, clearly destined for great things. An inspired touch was to make him a gifted storyteller, always ready with a tale to illuminate – often uncomfortably – the current situation. According to the Historical Note, this ability of Olaf’s is fictional, but the rest of the events involving him are documented (minus Orm and the Oathsworn, of course) in the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. Whether the saga was itself recounting sober historical facts or adding its own embellishments is a different question.

The characters of Thorgunna and Thordis were also strong aspects of the novel for me. In the previous two instalments, women have been either disposable slaves or witches with hints of dark supernatural powers. In Thorgunna and Thordis we meet the capable, forthright, down-to-earth Norse women so familiar from the Icelandic sagas, women who are strong-minded and courageous without the need for swords or sorcery. The Amazons of the steppe are based in part on archaeological excavations of tombs of women armed as warriors in the Ukraine, southern Russia and Kazakhstan. A sort of female counterpart to the Oathsworn themselves, they are a warrior band sworn to their leader and each other, dedicated to protecting the memory of the long-dead Attila.

The plot rattles along at a dizzying pace as the Oathsworn encounter one adventure after another on their quest first to rescue Thordis and then to return to Attila’s tomb and its hoard of unimaginable riches. This instalment completes the Attila plot that was begun in The Whale Road, and resolves the plot threads that were left hanging at the end of that book. The story of Attila’s tomb seems to be at an end now (or at least, I cannot see how it could reappear), but the same is not necessarily true of the Oathsworn, who will return for at least one further adventure in Book 4, The Prow Beast.

The political and military rivalries between the Rus princes (Vladimir is a major secondary character) make for a suitably dramatic backdrop as the Norse colonies up and down the great rivers are starting to form the beginnings of a state, which will be the forerunner of Russia and the origin of its name. A helpful Historical Note outlines some of the underlying history, which, as so often, is stranger than fiction (assuming one counts the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason as history), and a map at the front helps to follow the far-faring Oathsworn on their journeys.

Larger-than-life adventure saga following a band of tenth-century Norse warriors on their quest for the cursed treasure of Attila the Hun, through the biting cold of the winter steppe, battles with monsters and Amazons, and the shifting politics of the emerging Rus kingdoms.


Rick said...

I suppose the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason at least counts as historical tradition!

For that matter, a good many historical Vikings' lives, as given in standard accounts, would strain credibility as fiction.

Carla said...

Indeed. A tribute to the saga-makers' vivid imaginations, or a case of truth being stranger than fiction, or a mix of both?

Rick said...

Probably both. (Always the safe guess!)

But it occurs to me that I know nada about Viking historiography. Apart from (hostile!) press notices in Western and Byzantine sources, the saga tradition must account for most of what we (think we) know about them.

In the one case of 'Murrican-specific interest this pans out pretty well: L'Anse au Meadow shows that the Leif Ericson story is valid at least in general outline.

Gabriele Campbell said...

A mix of both, is my guess. Some elements of the fornaldursögur, the Fantasy of the Vikings, may have crept into the king biographies and to some extent even into the family sagas (the Njals saga is the major suspect). On the flip side, some of the fornaldursögur claim authenticity by pretending to have been written by some guy named Vergilius - on stone, to boot. :)

Carla said...

Rick - Well, many things aren't mutually exclusive, so a bit of both is not unlikely, as well as the safe guess :-) My feeling is that sagas would lose nothing in the telling (!), as a successful saga composer and performer would have an eye for the dramatic and would select, arrange and emphasise the material accordingly, maybe filling in with pithy aphorisms of what the king/hero/villain ought to have said at key moments. Sometimes players and events can be traced elsewhere so there's an element of independent verification of the outline, whether it's a named Viking leader turning up in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or archaeology turning up at L'Anse aux Meadowes to indicate that someone using Norse material culture was there at about the time that the Vinland saga says they were.

Gabriele - yes, I would agree about a mix of both. Even drawing the distinction may be a modern way of thinking. Who was Vergilius supposed to be? - is that a little like Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'very ancient book'?

Gabriele Campbell said...

Vergilius is Vergil, of course. Some of those Icelanders - and members of the court of the King of Norway - were learned men who had studied in Paris, Germany or Italy and who knew their Latin. And something by a dead Latin author carved on stone beats ancient books, I betz *grin*

Carla said...

Gabriele - Ah, yes, thank you - I should have worked that out :-)