The Prow Beast
Harper Collins UK (358 pp, $24.95, 2010)
Reviewed by Bill Ward
It was with some sorrow that I came to the last page in Robert Low’s The Prow Beast — the fourth and, sadly (for now?), final book in the excellent Oathsworn saga. Beginning with 2007’s The Whale Road, the Oathsworn series has followed Orm Ruriksson’s intrepid band of adventurers the length and breadth of the Viking world in the 10th Century, from Scandinavia to Constantinople, from Jerusalem to the steppes of Russia, all the while taking them from an obscure band of raiders to far-famed men the subject of song and saga. And it is this fame that lies heavily around the necks of the Oathsworn in this final volume, for their reputation makes them both a target and an ill fit for a settled life away from the sea.
The novel begins with a bang, in the middle of a grim sea-fight against desperate odds — and a wildly dangerous pack of ulfhednar, the ‘berserkers’ of Viking lore. Orm, our narrator for the whole of the saga, then backtracks to explain how his men’s current predicament came to pass, and how the alliance of revenge-fueled Randr Starki and Pallig Tokeson, King of the Joms, was born. A perfect storm of factors collides upon the Oathsworn, who find themselves hated, their treasure coveted, and the pregnant Queen with whom they were entrusted, Sigrith, wife of the King of Sweden, hunted by rivals who do not wish to see her birth an heir to the throne. The Oathsworn’s Hestreng Hall is looted and burned, their longship the Fjord Elk destroyed by Greek fire, and the remnants of the Oathsworn and their families find themselves hunted and on the run. And that is just the beginning.
In other reviews of this series I have discussed Low’s singular gifts as a storyteller and historical writer, and the vividness and authenticity he musters in his work is nothing short of extraordinary. These are no ‘mere’ adventure stories but, as I said in my review of The White Raven, “these novels feel satisfyingly like something lifted from the world of the 10th Century and translated into the idiom of our time.” From the skald-like rhythm of Orm’s narrative voice, his use of archaic Norse terminology, and his psychologically astute characterization that places him firmly inside the Viking cultural framework, to the hands-on level of material detail in Low’s scene-setting and his thorough grasp of the historical events and players — many of whom appear in his story — these novels are a masterclass in historical fiction. And, when it comes to the Dark Ages, I have seen no one approach Low’s intuitive understanding and breadth of knowledge of this period.
Low demonstrates that knowledge by plunging the reader into the chaotic tribal world of the northeast Germanic kingdoms along the Baltic for the book’s second act. Orm and the Oathsworn travel down the Oder in a borrowed ship — in fact the ship of the prince Olaf Tryggvason, called Crowbone, last seen in The White Raven — in order to rescue the son of Jarl Brand. The boy had been entrusted as fostri to Orm, and was taken during the confusion of the attack on Hestreng by a mysterious monk-assassin from the Great City, Constantinople. Old enemies — such as Randr Starki — lurk along the river, as do new threats in the form of Saxlander magistrates and Polish horsemen, all of whom seem to want the mysterious Mazur princess that Orm himself has fallen in love with, a girl taken on the journey because of the predictions made by a Finnish shaman . . .
Low piles it on, thread upon thread, but his skill is such that it never becomes overwhelming. In The Whale Road, Low’s first book, I sometimes thought the narrative on occasion jumped the rails and became difficult to follow. But Low has learned a trick or two in the interim, and with each succeeding book his skills as a storyteller have become as sure-handed as the best in the business. Somehow he strikes a balance between page-turning intensity and true narrative depth and manages the rare trick of crafting books that the reader is tempted — very tempted — to open back up to page one and start all over again when they have finished.
But what of the title, The Prow Beast itself? It refers to the fearsomely carved mastheads of Viking ships — potent ornaments that were often removed when a ship approached shore or port, in order not to offend the spirits of the land. It is a potent metaphor for the two worlds these men must have inhabited — the world of hearth and home, wives and children, fields and farmsteads on the one hand, and that of blood and fire on the other. Low pulls no punches in describing the red-handed horrors of the Viking world of strandhogg and rann-sak, painting scenes that go beyond gore to true horror. These hard raiding men, who have suffered appalling losses of their own, inflict them with equal measure and relish, and that strange paradox is the knife-edge upon which the emotional weight of the entire novel — perhaps the entire saga — balances.
For, in the end, there is but one life the Oathsworn can truly live. Their fame and success has ruined them for the hall and the high seat, they belong instead with oar and axe in hand. At one point in the book, when they have lost their ship, the Oathsworn continue their journey overland — the Fjord Elk’s finely carved prow beast affixed to a pole as a standard. At the grim conclusion to the novel, a desperate siege in a plague-town of corpses, the beast remains with them, giving them strength — the strength of men with the power to inflict the unthinkable on other human beings. It is the grim, fearless, dangerous Finn Horsehead that articulates what the other hard men among the Oathsworn must have known in their hearts when, upon being asked what he misses most about home on the eve of certain death in a distant land, simply points at the beast-standard and says, “I am home.”
By the end of The Prow Beast, Low has brought his narrator somewhat full circle, and the promise of more adventures is certainly there — whether those will see print one day, or whether that potential itself will instead serve as the fitting end for a saga such as this, only time will tell. Low’s next project is a trilogy dealing with the Scottish Wars of Independence, and I am eager to see if he can do for the Medieval Scots what he has done for the Vikings of the Dark Ages. In the meantime the Oathsworn books stand as a testament to Low’s learning, skill, and artistry, and they have truly set the new standard for historical fiction of this period.
This review originally appeared in Black Gate Magazine #15
BILL WARD is a genre writer, editor, and blogger wanted across the Outer Colonies for crimes against the written word. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, as well as gaming supplements and websites. He is an Editor at Black Gate, and 423rd in line for the throne of Lost Lemuria. Read more at BILL’s blog, DEEP DOWN GENRE HOUND.