Swords of Good Men is a pretty good siege story. That’s about as much as I’d feel bound to tell someone if I was, for instance, asked about it in a bookshop. Pretty good. Not a light for the ages, not bad by any means. Not even mediocre. It’s just… pretty good. It has some notable strengths and a few troubling weaknesses. I’ll go into all of that below, but if all you were wondering about is whether Swords of Good Men is a reasonably diverting Viking fantasy novel to hang around with for a little while, there’s your answer. It is, but it operates pretty much just as advertised. It’s not a diamond in the rough, but nor will you be too disappointed.
Anyway, on with the show. The premise of Swords of Good Men is that a young king named Olav has arisen, and he’s spreading Christianity throughout the Skandinavian region. This does not sit too well with adherents of the old Norse religion, so a number of powerful crews (of Viking raiders, that is) have joined forces under the leadership of aging warrior chief Skargrim, who is himself controlled by a mysterious witch called Skuld. Skuld and Skargrim’s raider army is sailing for the coastal town of Stenvik. Stenvik is ruled by the once-great warrior Sigurd, but Sigurd grows old, and the brutal captain Harald — manipulated by a scheming friend — contemplates taking the throne, in no small part because Sigurd, while no true follower of Christianity, has recently bowed to the inevitable and accepted King Olav’s rule. Stenvik thus represents an opportunity for Skargrim’s forces to send a message to other noblemen that defection to the “White Christ” will not be tolerated. By coincidence, Stenvik is also the destination of two young sons of noble families traveling North to strengthen ties of trade, and additionally lies directly in the path of the ever-growing army of King Olav as he proceeds through his realm converting (often by force) anyone who still holds to the old ways.
So, yeah, the set-up is basically this:
It’s a little bombastic. Still, that’s often all to the good in a siege story. The pacing is swift, the plot doesn’t noticeably suffer until the very end (when, yes, certain threads interact a bit clumsily), and the fight scenes are enthusiastic and thrilling. The prose is occasionally a bit overwritten, but it’s fairly rare and I doubt it will detract from the experience for most readers. Kristjansson’s battle sequences are probably a bit better than his “political” maneuverings (which honestly feel a little by-the-book) but I more or less enjoyed both. Some readers may find that the book drags a little in the middle sections, when neither army has managed to arrive and nobody seems to have anything to do but fret and plot, but I honestly don’t think pacing or occurrences are the root problem in that section. I’ll get to what I think it is in a moment.
Kristjansson’s done his research, and as far as I could tell the mythology and world he constructs is accurate to beliefs and practices of the time (although, granted, it’s been quite a while since I looked into Norse myth). He certainly gives it a feel of authenticity, which is probably all most readers will want. It’s easy to buy Stenvik as a location, and Kristjansson’s imagery surrounding his locations is some of his best work in the novel.
Now, as I promised, we have to get to the book’s issues. First, the point-of-view style is troublingly hyperactive. The book has an immense cast of characters, and hops between them with such rapidity (often after only a couple paragraphs) that it’s difficult to know or like any character in particular. In fact, I think many readers may become frustrated trying to remember who is who on such marginal acquaintance, particularly when you’ve got people talking about Skargrim, Sigurd, Skuld, Sven, etc. all in the same breath. Kristjansson seems afraid to linger too long in any one headspace, perhaps fearing that he’ll bore his reader. Ironically, I think that this tendency will be the one element that prompts most boredom, as the book skips about so frenetically and invites so little investment that the whole situation begins to feel like a disassociated muddle. Things begin to shape up again once the swords come out, but that may not be enough to win back readers who want to identify with complex characters (of which, even in the finale, there are very few, if any).
The dialogue is also a matter for concern, at least for me. Kristjansson may be of the school that “every-day” language will reach his audience quicker and easier, but a bit of archaic speech would have added some distance and a feel of a different culture that I think could have enriched the narrative. It just seems jarring in this context to have someone reverently offer a prayer to Thor, then turn around and let loose some modern colloquialisms. It’s like watching a group of high school D&D players having an in-character discussion, only every once in a while remembering they’re supposed to be elves and self-consciously dropping an “er… by the Moon-Glimmer of Lady Lashrinal!”
Finally, the finale leaves something to be desired. While the preceding battles are fine and dandy, Kristjansson clearly struggles to tie off the sheer number of plot threads he has in play, and many of his solutions feel somewhat slapdash and abrupt. A few plot threads are simply dropped altogether, making it difficult to say why these characters and points-of-view were introduced in the first place. Some of the King Olav sections in particular seem completely peripheral to the story, and a couple of random characters introduced just to die feel like the sort of thing that would work better in a screenplay than in a novel.
All in all, it’s not a bad debut novel. Kristjansson has some things to work on, but that’s expectable in a first-time novelist. At the end of the day, Swords of Good Men is fairly exciting, and succeeds fairly well as what it sets out to be — an adventure novel. The book ends on something like a cliffhanger, and if (as looks likely) the number of point-of-view characters diminishes in the second installment of the VALHALLA SAGA, then we may be in for some entertaining Viking thrillers in the near future.
Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson has a sharply focused premise and an action-oriented narrative, but issues of pace and point of view lessen the short novel’s impact.
The Viking town of Stenvik is the crossroads of events. Heading toward them from the north is a massive army led by King Olav, who is determined to unify the Scandinavian people under the White Christ, even if he has to kill a lot of them in order to do so. Defending the Old Gods against this upstart religion is an All-Star team of Viking raiders, ostensibly led by their general, Skargrim, but really under the control of a mysterious woman named Skuld, who says she is one of the three weavers of fate. Olav wants Stenvik as his winter base, while Skuld and Skargrim seek to deny its strategic potential to him. Stenvik is caught in the middle, much to the dismay of its old warrior chief Sigurd and his closest friend and advisor Sven. Also caught up in the impending battle is a just-arrived pair of young nobles — Ulfar and Geiri; the town blacksmith, Audun; the town healer, Valgard; and the town troublemaker/wife beater and his wife: Harald and Lilia.
Kristjansson does a nice job of conveying the feel of life in this time and culture (at least, it feels like he does; I’m no expert on ancient Scandinavian culture). It’s rough and tumble, gritty, claustrophobic, violent, ugly in lots of ways. Setting it in a time of great change — the Christianization of the region — adds a nice bit of tension. And I liked how Kristjansson shows us a range of response to this conflict — the faithful on both sides, the cynics, the opportunists, and those who don’t really care either way but just want to live lives of peace.
The two opposing leaders — Sigurd and Skargrim — are also nicely portrayed: Sigurd as an old warrior who wishes he could just leave his battle-axe up on the wall where he hung it after he built this town, and Skargrim as a sharply efficient captain who has some doubts about Skuld and her plans. Sven is another strong character, a wise old warrior and master strategist who was mentor to Valgard and who takes a shine to the new arrival Ulfar.
The action, once we get to the battle, is fast and furious, with lots of fierce attacks and defensive stands, clever booby traps, beheadings, bellowed challenges, flying arrows, and the like, with some berserkers and a kind of undead warrior tossed in for good measure. It isn’t pretty, nor is it particularly glorious, and it has some intriguing end results.
Those are the strong points of the novel. The weaker aspects don’t overpower the novel’s positives, but they definitely have an impact. The characters beyond the ones mentioned above aren’t all that compelling or well drawn. Kristjansson relies a bit too much on internal monologue for both Audun and Valgrad, and hits the same points with each a bit too frequently. Valgrad’s involves his attempts to manipulate events to his benefit like it’s all one big game of chess (technically the Scandinavian form of chess), an over-used metaphor before this book and way over-used within this book. Audun’s issues are his conflict over using his craft to make tools that kill and his dark past. Ulfar’s sub-plot is his falling in love with Lilia, which didn’t feel all that believable and felt like a clumsy attempt to have another conflict, one that really didn’t go very far. Meanwhile, Harald is not the biggest fan of Sigurd, and a running question is whether or not he’ll try to take over, though again, the whole thing feels a bit repetitive and sputtering.
Another problem for me was the quickness with which we moved amongst all these characters. I’ve never been a fan of the very short chapter structure, which in this case often made too many scenes seem shallow or purposeless, moving plot forward too incrementally or not allowing characters to develop fully and richly. Settings also whiz by too fast to have any true sense of place beyond the town. The quick in-and-outs especially don’t help in the beginning of the book, when everyone seemingly is a grizzled Viking warrior whose name starts with an S. And I had some questions as to whether we needed all the characters we meet/scenes we see. Finally, the dialogue between characters at times fell too modern, sometimes jarringly so.
Kristjansson does enough in Swords of Good Men that I’d pick up book two in hopes that issues of pace, structure, and dialogue are ironed out. If that happens, its follow up Blood Will Follow should be a fun ride.
Valhalla Saga — (2014-2015) Publisher: Swords of Good Men, Snorri Kristjansson’s debut novel, incorporates the myths that fascinated him as a child with his passion for epic fantasy. To weary Viking Ulfar Thormodsson, the town of Stenvik is the penultimate stop on the return leg of a long and perilous journey. It has been particularly challenging for Thormodsson, who has been charged with protecting the life of his high-born cousin. Having traveled the oceans of the world for two years, all he wants is to go home. But Stenvik awaits. The small coastal town is home to a colorful array of individuals, from the beautiful and tragic Lilia, who captures Thormodsson’s rough heart, to solitary blacksmith Audun Arngrimsson, whose past hides many dark secrets. The travel-worn Vikings also discover that King Olav is marching on Stenvik from the east, determined to bring the White Christ to the masses at the point of his sword—even as a host of bloodthirsty raiders led by a mysterious woman sails from the north. Meanwhile, there is trouble brewing between two of the town’s competing factions, a conflict that threatens to sweep all of them, natives and visitors alike, into the jaws of war. Thormodsson and his companions soon learn that in this conflict between the old gods and the new, there are enemies everywhere—outside the walls of Stenvik as well as within.