Snorri Kristjansson – Swords of Good Men

snorrikristjansson-swordsofgoodmenAfter two years spent as a travelling envoy and bodyguard to his high-born cousin, Ulfar Thormodsson has one last stop to make.

But in the cold, hard town of Stenvik, not everyone is as they seem and strangers can make hard enemies.

Audun Arngrimsson works his forge and lives a secret, solitary life. No one knows about his past, and he’d like to keep it that way. But the Old Gods have other ideas.

While unseen forces move within the town, a young king’s army marches towards Stenvik, intent on raising the banners of the White Christ.

And a Viking fleet of longships brings another, more mysterious enemy from the North.

I love a good Viking tale, though I’ve read far fewer than I would like, so when I saw the announcement of Jo Fletcher’s signing of Snorri Kristjansson for a Viking novel, the first in a trilogy, called Swords of Good Men, I was immediately on board. And the book had everything you might expect from a Viking novel. Vikings! Battle! Blood! Berserkers! But it had more, it also had political machinations, a love story, and the struggle of a world torn between the old gods and the new.    

Settling into the narration was a little harder than usual as Kristjansson switches point of view quite quickly within his chapters and while the number of viewpoints are limited, it made for a bit of a choppy rhythm that I had to get used to. What I absolutely adored is that Kristjansson uses the rhythm of Old English – and I’d assume Old Scandinavian – poetry, such as the Beowulf, in his writing, sometimes in the form of traditional poems and songs, sometimes just incorporated in the running text. I really got a kick out of it and it also fit with the fast viewpoint switches. Once I got used to the lightning fast switches in the story, they actually served to enhance the pacing of the story and Kristjansson ensures the reader is never lost as every new passage has a heading stating its location.

The story is divided into three factions: the Northern raiders, the approaching army of the Christian King Olav, and the people of Stenvik, all of whom have several viewpoint characters. Each faction has heroes and villains and while the people of Stenvik are clearly the home team the reader is supposed to root for, Kristjansson leaves it rather up in the air which of the approaching invaders is the lesser of the two evils. To be sure, personally, I rather liked the Northern raiders, especially Skargrim and Thora, his second-in-command, but the ultimate power behind their actions is obscured and seems somewhat sinister in nature, seeing as its representative to the Northern tribes, Skuld, is a witch with some really evil magic. The motives driving King Olav and his soldiers are far clearer, but at the same time they are far less sympathetic as Olav is clearly a religious fanatic not just surrounded by people who sincerely share his faith, but also by those trying to profit from his conquering ways, even if they still believe in the old gods.

The main characters in the book are Ulfar and Audun. Ulfar’s development over the course of the book is profound. He gains some much needed life experience and is revealed to be a cunning, clever, and creative strategist and warrior in battle. At the same time he learns what it is to fear for the lives of people you love and to actually lose them. Audun is rather mysterious and while some of his history and nature is revealed during the siege on Stenvik, there are many questions still unanswered. As mentioned previously, I really liked Skargrim and Thora, mainly because they have a delightful dynamic and their banter often made me chuckle out loud. The comfortable back and forth between long-time companions is something that Kristjansson shows to good effect not just in their exchanges, but in those of Ulfar and his cousin Geiri and Stenvik’s chieftain Sigurd and his councillor Sven as well. While there aren’t many important female characters, only four named ones that I can think of, they stand out and Kristjansson’s portrayal of Lillia and her attempts to break out of her abusive marriage and return to herself emotionally were beautifully done. One character that has to be mentioned is Valgard. He’s a fascinating character and the reader is kept on her toes in his depiction; his was the character I despaired most of, as I couldn’t pin him down. He’s a healer – generally characters that are portrayed as good, even if not always as kind – but he’s so conflicted and broken, that I kept going back and forth in my sympathies for him until he finally clinched my judgement in the last part of the book.

One thing Kristjansson succeeded very well at with Swords of Good Men is eliciting strong reactions. The appearance of the berserkers had me go oooooohhh, like one of those little Martians from Toy Story. He also had me exclaiming in protest at some of the twists in the book and there were tears, I won’t deny it. At one point I even took to Twitter to tell Kristjansson that he was an evil, evil man (he’s not, really.) Swords of Good Men is a fabulous debut and a gripping read, which I enjoyed so much I found myself putting off reading the final pages because I didn’t want it to end. More please!

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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  • I’ve seen early signs that this one is blowing reviewers away, and it’s definitely making me want to get my hands on a copy, when I can. While I prefer a little more fantasy in my books, I’m learning to appreciate a good piece of historical fiction more and more, and from what I hear, the interesting setting and unusual narrative and writing style will probably mean I’ll end up liking it a fair bit.

    • It really is a fabulous book. Plus Vikings, that alone should sell it ;-)