Giles Kristian – God of Vengeance

gileskristian-godofvengeanceNorway 785 AD. It began with the betrayal of a lord by a king . . .

But when King Gorm puts Jarl Harald’s family to the sword, he makes one terrible mistake – he fails to kill Harald’s youngest son, Sigurd.
On the run, unsure who to trust and hunted by powerful men, Sigurd wonders if the gods have forsaken him: his kin are slain or prisoners, his village attacked, its people taken as slaves. Honour is lost.

And yet he has a small band of loyal men at his side and with them he plans his revenge. All know that Ódin – whose name means frenzy – is drawn to chaos and bloodshed, just as a raven is to slaughter. In the hope of catching the All-Father’s eye, the young Viking endures a ritual ordeal and is shown a vision. Wolf, bear, serpent and eagle come to him. Sigurd will need their help if he is to make a king pay in blood for his treachery.

Using cunning and war-craft, he gathers together a band of warriors – including Olaf, his father’s right hand man, Bram who men call Bear, Black Floki who wields death with a blade, and the shield maiden Valgerd, who fears no man – and convinces them to follow him. For, whether Ódin is with him or not, Sigurd will have his vengeance. And neither men nor gods had best stand in his way . . .

Vikings! While Giles Kristian first reached my radar with his Viking novels, the first of his works I actually read was his Civil War novel The Bleeding Land. This book, chronicling the fate of the Rivers family during the Civil War completely blew me away, as did its sequel Brothers’ Fury–in fact, I’m still hoping for a third instalment. However, when God of Vengeance was announced as a new Viking novel and a prequel to Kristian’s Raven series I was equally stoked, because I’d finally get to read one of his Viking tales. And it was every bit as good as I’d hoped. It combined everything I loved about his Civil War books – his sense of language, character development, and gut-punching action scenes – with Vikings. What more could I have asked for? Well, a glossary actually, but it turned out there was supposed to be one in the book, but due to a printing error it got omitted and will be added to later printings. So, well-fixed before I mentioned it really. But what about the actual story? 

I adored the story. If there is such a thing outside of super hero comics, I’d call this story an origin story if I ever saw one. Recounting how Sigurd becomes the Jarl he is in the Raven trilogy, there are several tropes belonging to an origin story that can be identified in the narrative, such as Pure Will, It’s Personal, and This Means War! He collects a band of brothers, some of whose coming were foretold him in a vision he has while trying to gain the favour of the All-Father. And this process is fascinating, especially as we get small flashes of their own history, sometimes long before they meet Sigurd. I loved Sigurd, who is a young, proud and reckless youth at the start of the book and how much he feels he needs to prove himself, only to manage doing so under the most horrific circumstances imaginable: having to avenge the murder of his entire family and rescuing his sister.

Sigurd is a strong and compelling character, but he is surrounded by equally interesting characters. He starts out with just a handful of survivors from Skudeneshavn, men who have known him for his entire life and with a vested personal interest in revenge. His father’s right hand Olaf, who everyone calls Uncle, is a strong and calming influence, while the godi Asgot has a more sinister cast to him though he’s equally loyal to Sigurd. God of Vengeance is in no way just a boys’ tale; both Sigurd’s little sister Runa and the shield-maiden Valgerd play important roles in the narrative. These two women are completely different, but they have their determination to decide their own faith in common. And while they are clearly women, there is never a doubt that they aren’t as capable and brave as the men. Of the heroes Sigurd gathers together, the ones you sense will go down in history in a Skald’s tale never to forgotten, it’s hard to pick a favourite, but of the other men he finds my favourites were the grey-beards found at Osøyro. Their sense of honour, pride and bravery and their ultimate choices in battle made them irresistible and I loved how Sigurd acknowledges this. Between the band of brothers (and sisters) Sigurd collects there is a sense of friendship and camaraderie that is best gauged by the banter between them. This was one of my favourite things about the narrative, the formation of this strong bond between all of them.

Another aspect of the book that I really liked was its writing. Kristian has a strong sense of language and he uses it to its fullest. Even more strongly than in his Civil War series, he plays with the words and the rhythms. He also includes a lot of (Old-)Norse words, for which that previously mentioned glossary would have been useful, though their meaning becomes clear from the context as well and their English counterparts are used as well. At times the writing takes on the cadence and style of Old-Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry such as is displayed in Beowulf with its alliterative verse and kennings. His writing is vivid and graphic, evoking all senses, even taste and smell. The descriptions of battle are violent and gory and manage to convey both the euphoria the men feel, some of them almost seem to be berserkers, and how sick at heart they are after. Kristian also spares no-one and none of his characters are safe, a fact that left me wide-eyed in shock several times while reading the book.

I loved God of Vengeance and its heroes. The book ends with a satisfying climax, but leaves Sigurd’s tale unfinished and I hope Kristian will return to him in his next book, because I’m dying to know what happens next. With God of Vengeance Kristian returns to his (literary) roots and does so in a compelling manner. If you love Vikings or exciting tales of adventure and war, then this is a book for you. Similarly, if you enjoy origin stories of any stripe then this is a powerful one and it even has capes!

This book was provided for review by the publisher.