The North Atlantic and its environs is an ideal place to seek gods. Distances are vast, and navigation is tricky at the best of times. Extensive storms sweep from the Arctic, carrying away ships and crews. Thick, impenetrable fogs hide ships and sailors, leaving them lost or far from destinations. Relying on luck isn't an option, and sea, storm and other gods are appealed to as a matter of course. The intrusion of new deities only brings confusion - if the old gods fail, will the new ones be reliable? In this adventure tale, a pantheon of gods emerge, each with its capabilities and followers. It's the followers who seize our attention, chiefly the vitki Wolfgar. Blown far off course by one of those terrible storms, he and ten survivors arrive on the shores of North America, a place of legend and mystery.
Be prepared to have your attention seized and held when you take up this book. Larson's ability as a writer, demonstrated by the first volume of this trilogy, "Eye of Odin", is carried further with this story. Conspiracies abound in this story as Larson builds events. He doesn't let the reader rest as he first conveys Wolfgar's contact with, then immersion in a Lenni Lenape village. Wolfgar and his companions are welcomed by most of the village, including the shaman, Silent Owl. The shaman is impressed by Wolfgar's piety for his god, Odin. Silent Owl's own deity, Okeus, has granted him many visions, most notably that these "Swanukken" - sea people - would arrive. As a vitki, Wolfgar also has visions sent by Odin, but there are no conflicts between these deities. Wolfgar and Silent Owl conclude that their respective gods may be the same under different names. Others, however, view the intruders, particularly the holy man Wolfgar, as a threat to their own gods and, thus, their society.
While Wolfgar and his companions struggle to come to terms with their isolation, events at home - Greenland and Norway - are less amenable. In Greenland, Erik the Red has made a settlement, but it will stay with the traditional gods. He has sworn to keep the colony free of the intruder from the south. For this is a time of challenge by the Christians. Having taken over most of the British Isles, Christianity is challenging the old Norse gods. Conversions have been made in southern Norway, but the northern districts hold out. One adamant holdout is Wolfgar's son, Ragnar, who claims visions from Odin that his father is still alive somewhere. Ragnar's life takes its own serious turn when he's taken by Danish raiders. In Saxony, he's made a slave to a local lord, but a seriously ill child brings yet another twist to his life, and this story.
Norway, divided by gods, is ripe for unification. Olaf Trygvasson, born to a mother fugitive from Norwegian politics, has returned to the North Atlantic. Converted to Christianity by a miracle healing, he vows to bring both unity and the faith to his homeland. His methods are, to say the least, direct. He fills a dining hall with his enemies and sets the building afire. The object lesson isn't lost on other barons - especially when Olaf offers them a simple choice, convert or have their heads hacked off. The "loving Jesus" has a forceful emissary in Olaf, who continues his depredations against "heathen" gods by burning temples. His accompanying bishop is gleeful at Olaf's successes. The manner of conversion is unimportant to him.
Larson's handling of the issues of "faith" is supremely balanced. He plays no favourites among the gods, parcelling out miracles and special powers to each. The conflicts arising from the intrusions of new gods, particularly Christianity are deftly dealt with. He builds his characters around this theme well. When the Norse go a-viking, raiding towns and ships, these activities we usually consider as fundamental when we consider them during these times are mostly a side-light. Larson is to be congratulated for giving us a new image of the sea-faring Norsemen. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]