on 1 September 2013
I've given this first effort by Mr Kristjansson three stars because I'm just not sure; it is enjoyable and parts are well written, but there are still a few fairly annoying flaws. I must agree with much of what other reviewers have said so you won't find any mind blowing revelations here I'm afraid.
The story is a bit slow to get going but it's, really, just one story of a siege and the build up to it. The ending is contrived to provide a vehicle for the next book in this series, starring the two main characters and SK comprehensively clears the decks of any future complications through the expedient of killing off just about everyone else! There is a mystical element to the story and, although I don't much like that sort of thing in my 'Viking' books, it isn't too obtrusive here. There is a lot action flowing through and around the town of Stenvik and a plan of the town and its environs would have been useful.
The good stuff; Well, the evocation of Nordic lands a thousand years ago is quite compelling and I really felt as though I was there. The pace of the action, once you are more than half way through, picks up nicely and holds the attention well. Several of the characters are well drawn and interesting in their own right.
The more troubling stuff: By far my biggest grumble is with the style of having 'chapter' headings of place names and then having a new 'chapter' every time the story perspective changes from one character to another. This means that there are many 'chapters' that are less than half a page long. This constant and staccato switching between places and characters gets very confusing, made worse by the similarity in some of the Nordic character names. The fact that some characters switch their loyalties from besieger to besieged and some of the besiegers spend time inside the besieged town, just adds to the confusion. Please Mr Kristjansson, listen to me and countless other reviewers and write the next in this series but not in this style.
I did have other, lesser, issues. The love story is poorly drafted and seems to only be there as a formulaic "every Viking story has to have a love interest". There are three female characters; two 'villains' and a 'damsel in distress', and it seems strange that none of the many main male characters have a wife.Similarly, one or two of the characters seem to have been penned and then SK couldn't find a use for them in the story so they just hang about until being despatched. Without giving the game away, one of the two 'visitors' has a pointless and useless thread for 75% of the book before just fading away (and I'm still not sure why). Also, there are some glaring modern idioms used in the speech of the characters. I'm not a fan of fake 10th century English but some of these characters seem to have been watching American TV.
So, having listed far more negatives than positives, you may wonder why I have given three stars. It's because, despite the flaws, I still enjoyed this book. It isn't fantastic but it isn't rubbish either and it certainly entertained me for a few hours. Furthermore, I'm aware that this is Mr Kristjansson's first ever effort and, if he's as smart as his writing suggests, he'll listen to these reviews and change his style a bit. If he does, then the next in this series could be seriously good and I, for one, will be happy to buy the next book to see.
on 4 September 2013
I was lucky enough to win an ARC of this one via Twitter, and was so looking forward to reading it. It looks and smells exactly like my cup of tea. Maybe that was a bad thing, because it always seems that when I'm absolutely dying to get my paws on something there's a somehow inevitable sense of disappointment when I actually dig in.
Swords of Good Men is one of the most disjointed, interrupted novels I've ever read. Within each chapter the action jumps from place to place several times, and in some cases each of these sections is just a paragraph long. I actually really enjoyed the action and the characters that were described in each location, but found it hugely frustrating to have to keep switching between them so fast. I found myself losing track of names and threads in the process. You could, of course, argue that this is simply because I'm a bear of very little brain, but it just isn't a style that suits me well at all. Imagine trying to watching three really good films at once, channel hopping between them, that's what the majority of this novel felt like to me. The content is fantastic, but the style nearly killed me. Are attention spans really so short now? Or is this some new literary trait that I'm just completely unaware of? If this hadn't been a review copy, I would have been unlikely to have finished it, and that would have been a real shame because the absolute best of this one comes right at the end.
Style aside, Kristjansson's characterisation is outstanding. Many times through this one I was reminded of Gemmell, who will always be the master in my eyes when it comes to writing fantasy characters you can genuinely care about. If you like Gemmell, I suspect you'll also like Kristjansson. Sigurd is the epitome of a strong leader, and Valgard the healer is completely intriguing. It takes a good 160 pages until you find out just what he's all about. Thora is unforgettable and a great deal of fun. I see her in my head as a sort of female Brian Blessed with tourettes;
"Put some cock into it, you lazy mongrel shit-witted bastard whoresons!"
Audun is absolutely classic, and Harald is beautifully evil, if perhaps a little predictable.
There's a nice mix of town politics with wider issues, and Kristjansson connects the two well. My favourite aspect of the novel was the conflict between the Old Gods and The White Christ, that's an area that always fascinates me, and I'd recommend the novel purely on that point alone. I love to see how different authors deal with the same themes, and this is definitely one of the better explorations of the topic I've seen. As ever it's hard to do this without spoilers, but there's an image of King Olav in my head, up on the roof, desecrating some religious statues in a way that I won't forget anytime soon.
One aspect that I wasn't at all sold on was Ulfer's 'romance'. I didn't find his sudden attraction and subsequent character change convincing, and am curious to see what others make of it. It may just be that I have a heart of stone!
The raid towards the end of the novel is where everything starts to come together, and this jumped from a two to a four star read in the space of about fifty pages for me. The battle scenes are beautifully written, and the bag of tricks employed by the defenders is no end of fun. The last section of the novel attains a pace and consistency that I found missing previously, and it completely redeemed itself in my eyes. Everything is beautifully set up for the next book, which I will now be eagerly awaiting.
Kristjansson does an awful lot right in Swords of Good Men. He's not scared of a body count, and he's not afraid of a good old fashioned cliffhanger. His characterisation and world-building are hard to fault, and the clash of Gods within the novel is captivating. For me, the structure was the most questionable and damaging element. I would have much preferred to stay for longer spells with certain characters rather than the incessant jumping around that pervades the novel. But, that's just personal preference. Either way I was won over in the end.
There is a 2009 film called Vahalla Rising by Nicholas Winding Refn that stars the uber-talented Mads Mikkelsen. It follows the journeys of a Viking and explores the stark, often brutal, time which he lived. Swords of Good Men, the latest publication from Jo Fletcher Books, covers similar thematic territory but goes that little bit further. Imagine a novel that offers insight into the nature of a proud warrior culture and how tribes managed on a day-to-day basis.
The remote settlement of Stenvik is a hard place to survive, in fact, it's positively Darwinian. The strong prosper and the weak suffer the consequences. Beset on all sides by forces that want to take control, the village chieftain also has to contend with internal power struggles. As events swiftly begin to spiral out of control, conflict is inevitable.
The writing on display has an evocative air. Be warned though, things get pretty damn graphic as the plot moves forward. There is a wonderfully savage chaos in the action scenes. Unsurprisingly, when violence does erupt, it is often swift and brutal. I know that war is a terrible thing, but I think the writing tapped directly into that primal bloodlust that resides somewhere in the dark recesses of my brain. There was part of me cheering when the Viking berserkers, The Twenty, arrived. When it comes to the battles, there is something wonderfully uncomplicated about it all. There is no thought required only action, the rules are staggeringly simple: kill or be killed.
As an effective counterpoint to all the mayhem of the battlefield, it was a nice surprise to discover that the novel also contains a plethora of more introspective moments. When characters are not engaged in trying to chop bits off of one another they ponder their existence. How do they fit into the grand scheme of things? What is it that makes someone good or bad? Audun Arngrimsson, the blacksmith, is a good example of this duality. He is a hard-working, practical man. Initially, he appears content just to mind his own business, keep to himself and avoid any undue attention. When pushed to extremes however, the other side of his nature is revealed. The internal conflict that exists within Audun perfectly illustrates the internal conflict that exists within all warriors, longing for peace but relishing the unrestrained madness that comes only during war.
The other character I really enjoyed was the Viking captain, Eigill Jotunn. Anyone who knows a little Norse mythology will not be shocked to discover he is described as a huge, mountain of a man. The vicious meeting between Audun and Egill was the chaotic highlight of the novel for me.
The arrival of the White Christ, and Christianity, also plays an important part in the narrative. Many generations of tradition and the Old Gods have suddenly been set aside for a new religion. Entire communities have been forced to change their beliefs or face the consequences. When these differing theologies come crashing together like this, the results are as you would expect, bloody.
The fantasy elements are handled very delicately. It's only really in the final few chapters where these move to the fore. Kristjansson offers a suggestion of the fantastical at certain points throughout the narrative, but leaves these open to interpretation. I can imagine that this is going to prompt some vigorous reader debate. Some will undoubtedly relish the ambiguity in the writing, while others will probably loathe it. Personally, I rather enjoyed this subtle approach.
I've been very lucky with my reading so far in 2013. Once again, I find myself in the situation where another debut novel has blown me away. The writing is so self-assured. I was gripped from beginning to end, it feels like Kristjansson has been producing books like this for years. I'm a little bit in awe, but rest assured I'll be keeping an eye out for this author's next novel.
on 3 August 2013
Swords of Good Men is Snorri Kristjansson's debut novel from Jo Fletcher Books. Very much in the vein of David Gemmell, it's a Viking fantasy with a style not unlike Joe Abercrombie. Kristjansson has taken Norse myth and made a story where the Gods undoubtedly exist - Thor, Loki, Freya, Odin - they're all here, and not just in passing mentions. The town of Stenvik stands at the absolute centre of this novel - every character and plot thread drawn towards it for different reasons.
Kristjansson's biggest asset, for me, is his relentless writing style. The prose is quick, accomplished and action-packed. The actual action sequences here are literally breath-taking. As the novel is essentially the story of one fairly complex viking siege, it is essential that the action and the violence leaps off the page, and there is absolutely no doubt that Kristjannson has accomplished just that. It never feels stale, always feels shocking and remains the novels biggest strength.
Many of the characters too feel well-rounded and realistic. They have values which feel true to what I'd imagine Norsemen would have, but with a modern mindset and tone of voice which makes it easy to comprehend. On the other side of the same coin, the female characters here are worrying. In a cast of probably a dozen or more POVs - which is far too many for a book this short - there is one female POV, and I think she accounts for maybe two pages of actual text. Beyond that we have Freya, the Goddess of Love - who features only in the background, a borderline psychotic woman who felt terribly underused, and arguably the main villain who lacked clarity or reasoning which I think could have helped fill out her character and ultimately, would have given the book a denouement which may have made a little more sense if I could have empathised with her more.
The fragmented POV style of Swords of Good Men is its other main failing. The constant (and I do mean every few paragraphs, at best) switching of POVs and locations is confusing at best and irritating at worst. Just as certain characters begin to develop, or the reader starts to understand what's happening, we're whisked off to another POV in another place and left confused all over again, before changing to someone else, and again, and again. It's not that I completely dislike this style of storytelling, and I think that particularly in the latter third it works brilliantly, as we headhop in some exhilarating fight sequences - a lot like what Joe Abercrombie did with The Heroes - but to use this style of headhopping throughout the novel, from almost the beginning is very difficult to follow. The fact that this is not a simple tale of one side vs another, but rather one with three, four, five sides at play, makes for a confusing read; especially as it moves at such a pace.
Swords of Good Men would make a brilliant action film. It's quick, violent and action-packed from the start. The fantastical elements are there, but not overpowering. It occasionally reads like a film script treatment with its fractured storytelling. For all the issues I had while reading it, I was completely engrossed by the end and read the entire thing in one afternoon. It's a good debut and hopefully the start of something which could get a lot better. For now I'm looking forward to the sequel in the hope that we'll get a bit more substance to accompany the style.
As many others, I have read a number of “Viking Stories” written by quite a few authors: the “genre” is getting somewhat crowded. I liked most of them, although some were arguably better than others. I was a bit concerned that this one would be in the same vein as most of the others, and therefore hardly original. This is why I somewhat hesitated before buying and reading it.
It seems I was largely wrong. The action takes place in Norway, in and around the fortified town of Stenvik, held by Sigurd, an ageing warlord, as two Viking armies close on it, each intending to secure it for its own. After two years travelling as envoys across Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea, the young and handsome Ulfar (our hero) and his cousin had ended up in this town, the last before they return home. It will, of course, not be so easy, and our hero will get fully caught up in the coming battle, with lots of blood, gore and fighting. So far, so good and there is nothing really exceptional here. Similar episodes of ferocious and grim fighting can be found in other books from other authors, even if the ones in this book are rather well done and essentially take the form of siege with numerous assaults against Stenvik.
However, Snorri Kristjansson’s book does stand out in three respects. The first one is the historical context. It is about the forced unification of much of Norway under the cold, ruthless and fanatical Olaf Tryggvasson and his “White Christ” which took place in the last years of the 10th century. The young King, who appears quite frightening by his very calm, is depicted in a rather convincing way. His “Christianity” is a Norse and rather ruthless and bloodthirsty version of it. Pitted against him is a host made up of five warlords brought together by a witch and fighting for the old Gods. Sigurd, his warriors, Ulfar and the population of Stenvik are caught in the middle and fighting for their survival.
I have already alluded to the second strong point of this book: the characterisation. The leaders are all fierce, cunning and ruthless but then you would expect no less since they are the survivors of countless fights and expeditions and have become leaders precisely because they are outstanding warriors. Most of them, Skargrim, Sigurd and Sven in particular, are rather well described and may appear believable. So do the old scouts on both sides. I did not entirely “buy” the actions of our young Ulfar who, although relatively inexperienced, becomes a hero. However, he and other characters are all depicted with their qualities and their flaws and since this is a grim “Viking story”, happy endings are not to be expected.
However, the main originality and the main asset of this book is its atmosphere. This is a story about the “New God” of King Olaf fighting against the Old Gods and their magic. It is also a story of reckless courage, on both sides. Finally, it is a rather superb story about Scandinavian warfare, with the “up close and personal style” that you can expect and with quite a few terrifying and relentless berserkers. One of these is somewhat unexpected, tries to fight his affliction and is probably the most sympathetic character in the whole book.
Four strong stars for this first novel, which I highly recommend. It is the first of a trilogy and I will certainly read the next one as soon as it comes out.
on 24 August 2013
Great to read novels from foreign writers albeit he lives in London. Early Swedish/Norwegian/Danish history is very scant and Kristjansson has brought this era well into the limelight with the advance of Christianity into the ice lands. I have high hopes of his follow-up Valhalla Sagas.
on 19 March 2014
This book has the cover and the blurb that would lead anyone to think it's a piece of gorgeous looking viking age historical fiction. I'm going to spoil it all for you now by saying it is not - but then again, parts of it are.
It deals with one definite true viking historical figure, that of Olav Tryggvason, King of Norwary and a fierce converter of his people to the Christian faith. Once you start reading you will learn how the word 'fierce' is perhaps an understatement. But he's one third of the story.
The second third belongs to fictional viking noblemen, both sons of prominent Jarls elsewhere, and both travel together to a fictional trading town of Stenvik, somewhere on the scandinavian coast line. I admitt now the storytelling and mental building in the imagination of Stenvik makes it almost as real as Hedeby would have been in it's hay day during the viking period BUT Stenvik is not real. And therefore neither are the characters who inhabit it - with the many secrets, hidden agendas, complicated relationships etc. But to be honest once you start relating with, connecting to and generally wanting more through curiousity and interest about these characters - like all good storytelling they become real enough to matter.
The final third of this epic story involves 6, I may have miscounted, but yes 6 apparently renowned and feared Viking raiders and their crew that amazingly make up an army of around the 1000 mark (give or take a few for counting from memory) oh yes and the amazing star that really stole the show for me is a mysterious woman/girl who does what Joan of Arc did with the French - lead the Viking pagan raiders into battle. It is her character in particular that adds the fantasy element to this otherwise fictional historical fiction tale due to her powers of prophecy etc.
And these 3 sections of key characters with all their goals and struggles descend upon the fictional town of Stenvik to create one hell of a bloody, gorey, death filled, never ending battle effectively boiling down to Norse Gods vs Christ. I know one thing, if I was left to manage the town after the all-you-can-eat feast for the ravens I would just say BURN IT because the amount of blood spileld would stain the earth for decades.
However given this unusual norse fantasy tale in disguise as historical fiction complexity, it is a very good read. Plenty of drama, tension, the reader gets given a lot of secrets which in some cases you have to hold your tongue to prevent yourself shouting at the pages 'no don't go in the dark room...' or even 'OMG' for when there is a twist within the plot. Which brings me to the genuine surprise which is the ending. It is not what any reader I think will see coming and will leave you wondering a lot about what you have just experienced within those last chapters. To put it in a nutshell - it is a dramatic telling of what the Norwegians experiences when their King Olav was travelling around saying 'abandon Odin and join Christ or else' with a few hundred warriors at his back. Nowadays it's West vs East, Christians vs Muslims, Christ vs Allah. That conflict of people and faith happened to the Vikings on epic scale under King Olav and for a lot people giving up the Gods or not meant an end to the world they had all lived in for centuries. And it is almost in their honour for the many who died when fighting against such a tide of conversion that Snorri writes this tale.
So if you like historical fiction and don't mind a bit of 'stretching the truth' and if you LOVE your battles and blood then yeh, give this book a go. May the ending surprise you as much as it did me.
I love a story that takes me into the past and gives me characters that I want to not only spend time around but also gives me a story of possibilities where anything can and occasionally does happen. Here in this debut by Snorri is a tale worthy of the saga poets as the action is hard and bloodthirsty yet there are also tender moments within which give the reader chance to get their breath back. All round a great debut and one that if book two continues to build upon, will bring the author a lot of fans. Great stuff.
on 29 October 2013
Well written but it lacked a single substantial focal character that I could latch onto and it was all too grim too. At times I thought I was reading a historical peace about how Viking men lived and fought their battles because the story never really got going. Perhaps it was only half a book?
on 2 July 2014
I loved this first book in the series when I read it last year. While I agree takes a little while to get properly going I treat it as I would any origin story. There will always be a lot of scene setting, furniture to arrange, people to introduce. However, when it does get going it builds and builds until, by the end, I felt like I'd been strapped to the front of a steam locomotive doing 90 down hill towards the violent and visceral final act. I was left breathless and panting and hungry for more.
The writing has a cinematic edge to it. The way the world and people are drawn is very visual and reminds me of Terry Pratchett, David Gemmell or Clive Barker. So many interesting characters to love and hate and mourn. So many places to see and experience. I can't recommend this enough, indeed I bought 4 copies as Christmas gifts for friends last year and it was well received by all.