By Bill Ward
The Vikings have inspired tales of daring adventure almost from the dawn of historical fiction. H. Rider Haggard’s Eric Brighteyes still makes fine reading today, and one of Edison Marshall’s best novels, The Viking, inspired a film adaption with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. Even more famous, and finer, novels followed, like Charles Barnitz’ The Deepest Sea and Frans Gunner Bengtsson’s The Long Ships, the first third of which made it onto technicolor starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier. And of course it goes without saying that the Viking sagas themselves make for pretty stirring reading.
This week Bill Ward takes a look at an author whose making his own mark in the genre. The second book in Robert Low’s series just saw print: Bill decided to take a look at the first before he ventured further onto The Whale Road.
The Whale Road
By Robert Low
Thomas Dunne Books — St. Martin’s Press (340 pages, Hardback, August 2007, First published in Great Britain by HarperCollins, $24.95)
Vikings have long been a standard of adventure fiction, which is only natural when one considers that the stories and sagas the Norse prized most highly, the stories they told about themselves, were prototypes of the modern adventure tale. The image of Vikings and the Norse in general has fluctuated over the ages, and their depiction from the Victorian Era to the present includes everything from demonic psychopaths in horned helmets, to noble savages, to pseudo-knights of the sea. But there have also been good historical novels that aim for as accurate and as balanced a view as possible, and Robert Low’s debut novel The Whale Road is firmly in this camp, with a wealth of historical and cultural detail that brings this era to life on the page, underpinning all its adventure and daring-do with a gritty, real world sensibility.
The Whale Road is told by Orm Ruriksson, fifteen at the novel’s start and a fosterling at his uncle’s hall. We meet Orm in the midst of delirium, for he is just recovering from a deadly encounter with a bear that will forever mark him with the name “Bear Slayer” – a name, it soon becomes apparent, Orm has not earned. But Orm is celebrated by his father, whom he has not seen in a decade, as well as his father’s oarmates the Oathsworn, a hard band of sea rovers led by Einar the Black. Orm leaves his uncle’s hall forever, the first part of his life coming to a close amidst bloodshed, treachery, and secret shame, and embarks on a new life upon The Whale Road, a Norse term (or kenning) for the sea, but also for all the adventure and uncertainty that accompanies a life upon it.
The Oathsworn, men all bound by a sacred oath to one another, make for an interesting and varied crew of personalities. There is the giant Skapti Halftroll, the fatalistic Valknut, the wise Odin priest Illugi Godi, the carefree Geir Bagnose, and Einar the Black himself, a leader ruthless and proud, and very conscious of his own “saga.” They crew the longship Fjord Elk, and raid under the contract of a mysterious employer. Soon Einar realizes there is more to his employer’s reasons for wanting certain artifacts – Orm’s first foray with the crew is a raid to steal a reliquary from a church – and arrives at the half-believed realization that his employer is looking for a treasure straight out of the Volsung Saga, the cursed horde of Attila the Hun.
So Einar decides to track the treasure himself, and the quest takes the Oathsworn east, into the lands of the Rus at a fascinating time when the character of what would become Russia and the Ukraine was being formed in a crucible of cultures; Slavic, Scandinavian, Byzantine, and Steppe. Here is a vibrant world well within the Norse orbit that is often neglected in fiction in favor of the better known territory of Western Europe, and Low does an excellent job of exploring this frequently confusing swirl of peoples through the wondering eyes of his narrator. When the Oathsworn finally set out across the steppe, a vast dry sea of grass, to chase their dream of dragon silver, the contrast with their native world of waves and trees and mountains is brought home nicely, and the reader feels as if the Oathsworn really have ventured to the ends of the earth. A lot of ground is covered in The Whale Road, and it’s a great look at just how mobile the Norse were, and how interconnected were the lands they visited in the Dark Ages.
We see this world through Orm’s eyes and learn of it as he does, and share in his perceptions and beliefs. This perhaps is what really makes The Whale Road such a good historical novel, as the strongly held notions about the gods, about the mystical importance of oaths, and about the wyrd of fate, permeate almost every scene. Einar, in ruthless pursuit of his goal, breaks his oath to the Oathsworn, and the upset and speculation this causes about how this will affect the luck and fate of the band is of great importance. And in an age when Christianity was making strong inroads amongst the Norse, the conflict between pagan and Christian peoples – even among members of the Oathsworn – is well drawn and devoid of any agenda on the author’s part.
Orm tells his tale in poetic prose, as befits a saga, and much of the language of The Whale Road would not be unsuited to such a tale with its reliance on clever and apt metaphor and allusion. Through Orm we see both the ordinary – and here Low’s experience as a re-enactor is marvelously employed to create a sense of the concrete reality of this era – and the extraordinary. From his off-handed remark upon witnessing a human sacrifice, to the descriptions of the cold misery and chafing of sea-soaked garments on a long voyage, to the gritty, unsentimental depictions of gory battle (and battle’s aftermath), The Whale Road achieves a realism that never veers toward sensationalism. Low does not browbeat the reader into the realization that the oft-romanticized life of these warriors contained scenes of almost inconceivable horror – Orm’s cool reportage of the emptying of bowels and bladders in battle, the sound of sword blades sucking away from hacked flesh, and the indiscriminate predation made by disease and infection upon men in the midst of war all convey this reality with chilling clarity.
The Whale Road is, at times, somewhat vague in setting a scene or explaining the relationship of one of the numerous players to the somewhat convoluted plot, which can occasionally leave the reader guessing. But these are minor and infrequent hitches on what is a fantastic ride through the world of 965 AD, a ride that should leave the reader with a better grasp of what life might have been like for the roving men of the north. The level of detail and Low’s exceptional feel for the realities of this life, the thorough logic of fate and oath and obligation at play in the actions of the characters, and a plot bristling with action in the form of shieldwall battles and duels and a tremendous siege, the exploration of strange, forgotten places, and the rivalries and jealousies of men hungry for wealth and fame all make The Whale Road an excellent choice for fans of historical adventure.
And, though The Whale Road does stand alone as a complete story, Low’s follow up The Wolf Sea was released in May 2008. It’s certainly a book I look forward to reading.