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The early years of the Battle King
on 23 September 2012
At last, Robert Low has gone back to "doing" Vikings, and this one is a treat because it is different. The previous volumes of the Oathsworn were rather focused on Orm and Finn, his right-hand man. We do get to see a bit of them, but they tend to take second place. This is because this book is mostly about the early years as a young warlord of Olaf Tryggvasson, who would become what he is shown to want so much in the book: one of the most fearsome Battle Kings of Norway - feared, but not loved.
One of the most interesting features of this book is the drawing of Olaf's somewhat complex character. Deep down, he is scarred by his youth during which his parents were slaughtered and he was made into a slave. He knows fear but overcomes it through force of will, bravery and ever recklessness. He also becomes cunning, cruel, ferocious and rather unscrupulous, to say the least. By and large, he is anything but a "nice" character, but then he would not survived very long if he had been. Another related feature which I found most interesting is the implicit and explicit comparisons that Low has his readers make. If you have read the other books in the series (or even if you haven't for that matter), the contrasts and similarities between Orm and Olaf are striking, with the former being wary, although not afraid, of the latter's recklessness and somewhat paranoid behaviours, whereas Olaf becomes little by little to becomes colder and less human.
Another great feature is the depiction of some of the other characters that we come across, and who seem and feel real, regardless of what they really were like, and this is something that we will probably never know anyway. These include the old Viking King of Dublin and his sons, with Sigurd who would be among the warlords defeated at Clontarf more than 30 years later, without forgetting his wife of whom we will probably learn quite a bit more in Robert Low's next instalment. We also have the last son of Eric BloodAxe, his fearsome which of a mother and his two henchmen, including a psychopath of a youth who happens to be a very gifted killer. The fictitious characters are just as good and the historical ones with all of them coming to life.
A third (or is the fourth?) element which I particularly liked was the kind of guided tour through the Viking World of the 10th century that Robert Low takes us through in this volume. All is accurate and well-researched, at least as far as I can tell, from the last stronghold of the Khazars on the Black Sea, to Norway, Ireland, the Isle of Man, the last stronghold of the Picts and the Jarl of the Orkneys. The quest for Odin's Daughter, a magical Battleaxe that brings both power and ultimate doom to all of its owners, feels like a Viking version of the Quest of the Grail, with all its treachery and violence. The final climax, up in "Finmark" and then in the Orkneys, is as brutal and violent as you can expect and rather well done, even if not entirely a surprise. It also includes the hint that we will be having more of the Oasthsworn in future as Orm and his men sails to Ireland to attempt to win back his wife.
All is all, a superb read on the same high standard as all of the previous books in the series. I lapped it all up as fast as possible, loved every minute of it, and I am still asking for more...