Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson is the first book in a series (The Valhalla Saga) that seems crafted specifically for fans of History Channel’s Vikings who want something more, set in the fascinating world of Nordic warriors and their fierce pantheon of gods. Set in 996AD, Swords introduces readers to the conflict between the Christian King Olav and the pagan believers that inhabited most of Norway during the time period. The conflict appears to be loosely based on the real attempts of King Olaf I of Norway, who used violence and coercion to force his religion on his subjects and to spread Christianity throughout Scandinavia. I suspect that the full Valhalla Saga will cover his entire four-year quest to convert the region.
Ulaf Thormodsson and his cousin, Geiri, end up at the town of Stenvik as a last stop before they can return home after two years of travel. They expect their visit to the small town to be uneventful, but forces beyond their power are converging to make this final destination one they’ll never forget. King Olav’s armies are converging on the small town by land as one stop in the King’s quest to forcibly introduce Christianity to his people; a second force of warriors, led by a mysterious woman calling herself Skuld, one of the three Norns, heads toward Stenvik by sea to battle for the old gods and bring glory to them and their families. The people of Stenvik have no choice about protecting their town, but which force will reach them first and how long can they survive a war where their little town is just a pawn?
What I Liked:
The descriptions of life in a Viking/Scandinavian settlement in the 10th century were incredibly well done. I had a strong feeling of how Stenvik was laid out and how each member of the community fit into the society. Obviously, some serious research went into creating a realistic vision of a pseudo-historical world.
Ulfar and Audun manage to be sympathetic characters even when you want to boot them in the head. They’re fully created and have strengths and weaknesses. (Hint: Ulfar has a thing for pretty girls.) I was rooting for them throughout the novel.
The “villains” in Swords aren’t static any more than the heroes. In fact, most of them aren’t really all that evil; they just put protecting themselves and their interests over helping others; however, creating a well-rounded antagonist takes skill, and I applaud Kristjansson’s in this novel.
All of the battle scenes were detailed and so well described that I almost felt like I was there. Admittedly, feeling like you’re on a 10th century battlefield is not entirely a good thing (I have a few issues with nearly smelling ripped-out entrails as I sit in my living room.), but making battles work on paper is a much harder task than in a visual medium. I’m impressed!
Virtually nothing mentioned in the text was thrown away as useless information. There are hints given for many reveals near the end of the book, which seem relatively uninteresting at the time, but they all have something to do with the overarching plot.
What I Disliked or Didn’t Work for Me:
The marketing material all over the back of Swords of Good Men keeps talking about this as a fantasy novel, and I just don’t see it. There are some elements of magic that appear in it, but, overall, I classify this as good historical fiction; however, it is entirely possible that things become more fantastical in later volumes of the saga.
The women in Swords aren’t as well developed as the male characters in my opinion. I can forgive Skuld for being very one note, because she’s portrayed as the embodiment of a goddess, but Lilia is a plot device, not a real person. Thora, the only female warrior in this book, is tough, foul mouthed, and not much else, although I appreciated her inclusion a lot.
This is a very personal nitpick, and I can appreciate that no everyone shares my point of view, but I dislike books where changes in narrator occur within the same chapter. Swords of Good Men doesn’t have chapters as such, but there are chunks discussing the events of many different groups during the same time period grouped together. While I adapted to it by the end of the novel, this style made it harder for me to get into the narrative at first.
Overall, Swords of Good Men is an excellent foray into historical Scandinavian fiction (not that I’m intimately familiar with the genre), and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Vikings, ancient battles, or religious conflicts. I definitely will look forward to later installments in The Valhalla Saga to continue the story.
4 Sacrifices to the Norse Gods out of 5