Saturday, April 3, 2010

Review of The Wolf Sea by Robert Low

Book Info: The Wolf Sea, by Robert Low. Hardcover import, 339 pages. Published 2008

Author Info: Robert Low lives and writes in Scotland. He was a war correspondent and journalist in Vietnam, Kosovo, Romania, and Sarajevo. He spends his summers in a Viking Reenactment group, fighting in shield walls all over Britain.

Plot Summary: The year is 965 A.D. The Oathsworn, a group of Norse men bound by an oath to Odin, pursue wealth and fame in exotic places such as Constantinople, the Greek Islands, and Jerusalem.

The story opens with the theft of a sword; it is rumoured to contain metal from the spear of destiny: the spear that pierced Christ's side during the crucifixion. The Oathsworn, led by the deep thinking but young Orm, pursue the sword and its thief across the Middle East. They fight, befriend and rob peoples as diverse as the Berbers, Saracens, Greeks, and Jews. There are betrayals a plenty, as well as battles, intrigues, double and triple crosses, and fortunes stolen and lost. Renegade Christian monks, castrattii, giant Norse berserks, Islamic merchants, and Byzantine Generals all appear and influence events as Orm tries to keep his men alive and pursuing wealth.

Analysis: The most intriguing aspect of this book was the completely convincing recreation of the mindset of the Norse. They were not merely bloody minded savages, but a people steeped in myth, religion, and superstition. Strict codes of conduct, and a fervent belief in the myths and legends permeate every area of their lives. From washing and eating to how to kill an enemy and the just punishments in this life and the afterlife for betrayal and oathbreaking.

For example, to call someone a liar and that god will punish them is a very different thing than calling them an oathbreaker, and knowing what awaits them after death. Especially when the oathbreaker knows what he has done and is convinced what will happen to him. "No Valhall halls for me, or riding with Valkyries. I'll sit on Hel's benches with the rest of the nameless, nithing dead til Ragna Rok."

It is the total recreation of the belief systems and mindset of these peoples that overwhelms the reader. What the author knows about the Vikings and the world of the tenth century is impressive, but even more impressive is how he presents it. In dialogue, in narration, in interior monologue, he shows a true novelist's skill. What we think of as stories about Thor and Odin are as real to the Norse of this era as the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the assasination of Lincoln are to us.

Religion and myth are the dominant modes of percieving the world in this book. Far from being pedantic the reader feels the world of the story is a living one. And one which a modern day man would not likely last long in. I thought of Nietzsche's warning when he wrote of the Homeric Greeks: "Do not think that for a moment you could withstand one day's worth of their light, for it and the world would surely crush you."

The fight scenes are brutal. You'll flinch. And there are a lot of them. Which I think is an aspect of the realism of the book. It was violent, dangerous age. A well made sword or spear, and the skill and knowledge of how to use it, was essential to survival, not just a sport. Survive one battle today and die the next because you held your shield too low.

For example, in one scene he has the character Orm talk about men who are practicing duelling. They fright sword against sword and Orm mocks them because "no warrior places edge against edge, since a sword is too valuable a weapon to ruin in that way. Sword on shield is the way and only if you must do you block with a good edge. A warrior knows this."

Its that kind of realism and insight that made the book well worth reading. And a delight.

Other thoughts: I bought the book because of the recommendations on the websites of Richard Morgan and Joe Abercrombie. Both of whom write convincing barbarians. They both praise Robert Low's realism and I would agree. I think it a tribute to the book that the realism is so perfectly balanced with the dominance of myth and religion. Not many writers could pull that off.

Similar Reads: Bernard Cornwell's Saxon chronicles, The Last Light of the Sun, by Guy Gavriel Kay, The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan, and Joe Abercrombie's The First Law Trilogy.

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