30 June, 2014

Crowbone, by Robert Low. Book review

Harper, 2013. ISBN 978-0-00-729856-3. 369 pages

Crowbone is set mainly in Ireland and Scandinavia in 979-981. The central character, Olaf Tryggvason (by-named Crowbone) is a historical figure, as are his arch-enemies Gunnhild Mother of Kings, widow of Eirik Blood-Axe, and her last son Gudrod. Other main characters are fictional. The historical Norse Earls of Orkney and various Irish kings appear as secondary characters.

In 979, Olaf Tryggvason (known as Crowbone) is seventeen and already a veteran fighter and raider. Having quarrelled with his friend Vladimir of Kiev, Crowbone is no longer welcome in the Rus lands and is at something of a loose end when he meets his old friend Orm Bear-Slayer, jarl of the Oathsworn, in Hamburg. Orm has received a message from a monk on the Isle of Man concerning a secret that could help Crowbone make good on his claim to the throne of Norway. Orm gives Crowbone silver to hire a ship and a crew, and sends him off with the trader who brought the message. But Crowbone’s rival and arch-enemy Gunnhild Mother of Kings and her last surviving son Gudrod – who between them were responsible for the death of Crowbone’s parents – have also heard of the secret, and will pursue it and Crowbone to the death. And the monk on the Isle of Man is not all he seems... As the quest unfolds and the searchers converge on their goal, Crowbone faces battle, shipwreck and treachery, and must decide who – if anyone – he is willing to trust.

In theory this is the fifth in the Oathsworn series, following The Whale Road, The Wolf Sea, The White Raven, and The Prow Beast (links to my previous reviews of each title). However, as the focus is on Crowbone (as implied by the title), rather than on Orm and the Oathsworn, it is much more of a stand-alone. There is no need to have read the others first, although readers who have will pick up lots of references to previous characters and events.

Like the others, Crowbone is a blood-and-thunder adventure full of action and violence. The historical Vikings were part traders and part bloodthirsty raiders, and although both aspects feature here, the bloodthirsty raider aspect is very much to the fore. Crowbone and his followers are fighting men, and fighting is what they do, whether it be a duel to the death on a deserted beach, or a pitched battle among the Irish kings. Political manipulation is another major focus, more so than in the other Oathsworn novels, reflecting Crowbone’s status as a claimant to the kingdom of Norway. The Norse game hnefatafl*, referred to as ‘the game of kings’, is a recurring theme, both as the game itself and as a  metaphor for the political manoeuvring that is as essential to the would-be Norse king as the axe in his hand and the knife in his boot.

Crowbone dominates the novel. Highly intelligent, courageous and a gifted storyteller, he has more than a hint of the uncanny about him (as was foreshadowed when he was a boy in The White Raven). Not surprisingly, given his ambitions and his traumatic early life, he is not a particularly attractive character, manipulative, suspicious and ruthless. Not a man you want to be around, as Orm muses. In this novel, Crowbone is emerging into adulthood and beginning to carve out his place in history. He is often very much alone, even when surrounded by his companions, and this is in large part his own choice, recognised as part of the price he must pay for power, however much he may occasionally hunger for human warmth.

The atmosphere is brooding, with a strong sense of supernatural undercurrents – whether due to gods, Fate or seidr magic – that could erupt at any moment. The religious divisions of the late tenth century are never far away. The Oathsworn are bound by an oath taken before Odin, yet some of Crowbone’s other followers are at least nominally Christians. They encounter Christian kings, priests and monks in Ireland and elsewhere, even as they pursue their quest for a symbol of Odin’s power to a distant land renowned as the domain of a goddess of yet older beliefs. Religious tensions simmer beneath the surface, occasionally erupting into open conflict.

The writing style is dense, liberally sprinkled with Norse words for atmosphere (like hnefatafl, seidr, etc). There is no glossary in the book, but I found no difficulty as most of the Norse terms are translated or were clear from the context (caveat that I’m interested in the Norse world, so they were probably more familiar to me than might be the case for other readers). Scots dialect words and phrases seem to be used to indicate a Norse style of speech; again, I had no difficulty, but they may not be familiar to all readers. There is a map at the front that may help to follow the characters on their far travels, although it does not always give the Norse names used in the text (e.g. Dyfflin for Dublin, Hammaburg for Hamburg) and some places are not shown at all. A helpful Historical Note at the end outlines some of the underlying history.

Gripping, violent action-adventure following Crowbone (Olaf Tryggvason) on his quest for a dark secret that may be his key to claiming the throne of Norway.

*Hnefatafl is a board game of skill, a little like chess except that it is a hunting game rather than a battle game. Readers of Terry Pratchett’s Thud! will recognise it.


Beth said...

Great review - I really must get back to this series.

Carla said...

Beth - thanks. This is only obliquely connected to the Oathsworn series, so it's a sort of offshoot (or maybe the start of a new series?).

Rick said...

The temptation to a second series must be strong when writing about the Vikings, given how many of them had careers too eventful for one series to handle!

Carla said...

Rick - Yes, I wonder if this is going to be the start of a series about Olaf Tryggvason. The original Oathsworn series centred on fictional characters (Orm and the Oathsworn), with historical figures coming in as secondary characters, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if young Olaf Tryggvason was originally introduced as a secondary character and has ended up muscling in and demanding a series to himself :-) If the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason has even a grain of truth in it, there's no shortage of material.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Plus Vikings, both in the historical and Fantasy version, seem to be quite popular right now. I got Kristjansson and Abercrombie (the YA, Half a King) on my To Buy list. Need to wait for the next paycheck. :-)

Carla said...

Gabriele - Vikings are always cool :-) I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on those two books, when you've read them.