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Good thriller and « detective story » partly let down by translation
on 1 August 2015
A number of other reviews have mentioned the disservice that the translation has done to this book first published in Danish. Essentially, the translator has chosen to insert numerous colloquial “Americanisms” with which a number of reviewers (not all English, by the way) have taken exception. This is indeed a problem, mostly (at least for me) because it is an anachronism. Neither I nor other reviewers expect the characters to speak on Old English, Danish or Norse, of course. However, mentions of a “worst case scenario” or of a “buddy”, just to mention these two (there are quite a few others as well) jars rather horribly and can somewhat spoil the story.
Fortunately, I found the plot and historical context rather excellent so that this remains a good and even a great read, despite the translation. The plot is set at a time when Knut has just vanquished the last Anglo-Saxon resistance of Edmund Ironside who has died shortly before. The Danish King being quite literally the “last man left standing”, seeks to have his conquest, his reign and his domination over the whole of England accepted by both his army and warlords and by the Anglo-Saxon nobility and his future subjects. For this, he needs to reward the former and ensure the security of the later while also ensuring the Church that he will rule justly and according to the law.
Unfortunately, a Saxon thegn has just been murdered at the gathering in Oxford called by Knut to achieve his reconciliation scheme. His widow accuses Knut of being behind the murder, which is possible since he previously had a number of his high profile opponents and rivals murdered quite openly. To save his reconciliation scheme, something that is, of course, in his own best interest, Knut appoints a Saxon cleric and illuminator and a half-Dane disposed nobleman to try to solve the case in a show of objectivity.
While the plot may not appear to be terribly original, the period chosen is, and the historical context and characters are presented in very plausible ways. This is particularly the case of Knut himself, but also of Archbishop Wulsfan and of the enigmatic but though Thorkell the Tall. Many of the fictional characters are also good, particularly the Chief of Knut’s huscarls.
The two other main strong points of the book are the historical context and the attitudes of the various characters, both of which ring true. The events and the inquiry take place at the (historical) gathering at Oxford under heavy tension between the victorious Danes and the various war bands of Vikings associated with them and the defeated Anglo-Saxons which, by then, had submitted to Knut but may still be unwilling to accept him as King and could be plotting his demise. An added “wrinkle” is that the huge tribute that England was to pay to the Scandinavian army and fleet – the price for sending most of it home and content – is to be mostly assembled in Oxford, a town that Knut and his father had pillaged less than a decade before.
The atmosphere of general suspicion and fear of the King is very well captured. So is Knut’s awareness that he needs to watch his back, starting with his closest and most powerful councillors. This is also historical since he would indeed drop out with one of them a few years later, one who was in fact too powerful to eliminate as others had been previously. Four stars, but this one could have been worth five had it not been for the translation glitches…