Vikings, man. You can’t take them anywhere without someone’s throat getting slit. Pit a Viking army against a Viking village as Snorri Kristjansson does in his first novel, Swords of Good Men, and there’s going to be some serious ass kicking going on.
Swords is grisly fun once the axes and arrows start falling, but it’s a shame that Kristjansson’s Vikings’ idea of wartime foreplay is drawn-out political maneuvering and angsty wallowing. The bloody climactic battle makes the slow build up worth the wait, but only just barely.
The town of Stenvik is the last stop on young Ulfar Thormodsson’s two-year journey as envoy and bodyguard to his noble cousin. Their job is to secure the town’s allegiance. Boring, right? The only thing keeping Ulfar sane is the rippin’ and the tearin’, as they say. But life gets more interesting when his cousin is knocked into a coma, stranding them in Stenvik as Viking raiders descend from the North. Stenvik’s rescue could come from an army flying the banners of the White Christ, but they’re several days away while the raiders are at the town’s doorstep with an all-star cast of killers. There’s giant Egill Jotunn, sneaky Ingi, foul-mouthed Thora, and their grizzled leader Skargrim. He takes orders from a mysterious woman who calls herself Skuld and claims to be the old gods’ champion against the White Christ.
As far as epics go, Swords of Good Men is relatively modest in its scope. The story takes place over a handful of days and each of the three major forces counts its warriors in the hundreds. This could’ve been a refreshing change compared with other series that span years and continents, but the first three-quarters of the book moves at a glacial pace as Kristjansson jumps between nearly a dozen characters. Their machinations move in incremental steps, sometimes taking up less than a page at a time before skipping to a new character. Even though the book is only listed as 304 pages in hardcover, it feels twice as long.
One plotline follows Stenvik’s physician as he manipulates the town’s most fearsome warrior into challenging the chief for the right of leadership. It’s an intriguing setup that ends with a dramatic payoff, but most of the time we’re watching the physician get pissed at slights both real and imagined. I don’t mind some leisurely character building, but here the cast is large and almost everyone is a grizzled Viking so it’s easy to lose track of who is doing what to whom. Worse is how straightforward everything is. You could probably cut out the middle of the book and skip from the beginning to the finale and have a clear idea of what is going on.
The good news is that the final battle is a lot of fun, assuming you measure fun like I do—with booby traps, head bashings and arrows to the throat. The fighting finally gets personal and everyone stops cracking jokes (which is another thing that bothered me—these Vikings don’t sound much like Vikings. They say things like, “shut up” and “not bad.” But maybe that’s just me). So many characters come to life when they finally have a sword in hand that it’s a crime that they didn’t start fighting sooner.
That’s ultimately why I’m still willing to pick up the next book in the series. My hope is that Kristjansson has pumped the filler from his system and now we can get into the religious crusade at the heart of the story. All the surprises were hoarded until the end of this first book, but now that they’re out—Ulfar’s fate, for example, should include a very different kind of rippin’ and tearin’ from now on—there’s reason to be interested. I have reservations about what to expect from the next book in the Valhalla trilogy, but I’ll still be reading it.
Swords of Good Men is available now from Jo Fletcher Books.
Matt Marquez is a freelance writer and photographer whose grade school teacher briefly thought he was a genius when he turned in his Shadowrun fan fiction for an assignment. Follow him on Tumblr and Twitter.