THE WHALE ROAD by Robert Low

14 11 2010

Another series about a boy who sails off with a gang of Vikings and so becomes a Viking himself. There have been some very good ones – Paul Watkin’s Thunder God, Tim Severin’s Odinn’s Child, Sworn Brother and King’s Man, for instance – but I must say that this seems more down to earth, more realistic, than the others. Quite simply, most Vikings, from Henry Treece on, have been too nice, too gentlemanly.

There is nothing nice or gentlemanly about this lot!

We wintered at Skirringsaal, on the southern tip of Norway, because it was too late in the year to get to Birka, which was further east along the Baltic and frozen in now. Skirringsaal was handy and had all that the Oathsworn needed: drink, food and women, though it was only a summer trade fair, a bjorkey, which fell quiet in winter […] Almost everyone bought a slave girl at once – to the relief of those traders who thought themselves stuck with them all winter – and the hov was thus fairly crowded, with nothing to do but repairs to gear, or dice, or play endless games of hnefatafl and get into fights about who won.

That and drink and fucking seemed to make up winter, as far as the Oathsworn were concerned […]

Once I saw the Trimmer, busy with a game, drop one of the ‘tafl counters. It rolled practically under the arse of one of the weary slave girls, which was bouncing on the filthy rush floor under Skapti’s grunting slams. Without even looking, Trimmer shoved her buttocks to one side, retrieved the counter and went back to the game.

Once over the reluctance at doing all this in front of others, humping slave girls was what I did whenever possible.

If you don’t like that sort of thing, don’t read The Whale Road.

Another interesting point is that while they are down to earth, they are not ‘down to the sea’ as much as you might expect. This is a matter of the various authors’ fields of expertise, I imagine. (Tim Severin has sailed across the North Atlantic himself in a curragh, a primitive Irish boat no Viking would have dared attempt it in!) Most of this takes place on dry land – very dry indeed when, in the latter half of all three books, they find themselves out on the open steppe.

Orm Ruriksson has killed a great white bear – the polar bear we all think so beautiful when we see it on our screens. Here we get the real thing. “It was a cliff of fur, a rank, wet-smelling shriek of a thing that swung a snake neck with a horror of a head this way and that, one eye red in the firelight, the other an old, black socket […] It saw us, smelled the ponies, didn’t know which to go for first.” And our hero? “I pissed myself, then and there.” But somehow, he doesn’t know how, the bear ended up dead and he ended up alive and named “Bear Slayer”, and having no choice but to join his father – a stranger – and the rest of the Oathsworn on their ship the Fjord Elk.

In this first book, The Whale Road, they are hired as relic-hunters – relic-robbers – and sent in search of a rune-sword made of the metal that once formed the head of the spear that was plunged into the side of “the White Christ”.

They find this miraculous sword, and it proves to be true that he who wields it cannot be defeated. But they also find, in the desert, the accursed treasure cave of Attila. And there, most of the Oathsworn die.

When The Wolf Sea, opens, the survivors, led now by Orm (our narrator, the Bear Slayer) who holds the sword, and has a reputation for being a deep thinker, are stranded in Miklagard, the great city of Constantinople. When the sword is stolen from Orm they are thrown into despair. Now they have nothing. No ship, no sword, no money. Just a dream of returning to Attila’s great hoard of silver out in the desert, this time doing the job properly, and then getting themselves a ship.

The stories seem sometimes to lose their momentum, but that may be me, Viking sagas are not my number one favourite genre, and also I kept having to put the book down and losing track of the plot – so when I say that I turned to the second and third ones in the series with real enthusiasm that means a lot!

The White Raven, which I have just read (and reviewed for Medieval Mysteries as well) is the sequel to The Whale Road and The Wolf Sea. When the book opens, Orm and the Oathsworn (what few are left of them!) are scratching out a living as farmers – and growing very, very restless. Only Orm’s authority as Jarl keeps them at it.

‘Why does Finn have a face like a goat chewing a wasp?’ demanded Botolf as Ingrid glared at Aoife and hung on Botolf’s big arm.

‘He thinks we are living in a dream and going soft,’ Kvasir said, wiping bread round his platter and tossing it into the snapping maw of a wolfhound. He looked softly at his wife. ‘Being chided for how we speak and needing our hair cut. He thinks we should be off on a hunt for silver.’

Botolf, who knew what he meant, grunted thoughtfully. Thorgunna, who simply thought it was warriors being restless, snorted.

‘Go raiding then – though it is no pastime for honest men if you ask me. At least you will be putting in some effort for the food in your bowl. Seems to me Jarl Orm is overly tolerant of every lazy one of you.’

She scooped up bowls with meaningful noise and shot one of her looks as she went. No one spoke for a moment or two, for it is a well-known saying that there are only two ways of arguing with a woman and neither work.

What does he have in mind? Thumping them and humping them? But I’m glad to know that even in the view of a man like that ( a real man?!) neither method works! However, it is not simply going a-viking (i.e. raping, robbing and killing) that his men want, it is to set off once more in quest of the silver horde of Attila, the treasure they once found and then had to leave.

Don’t read this book until you have read the other two! Treat the whole trilogy as one long story – it is – and don’t try to read or expect to appreciate the end before reading the beginning.

After their steading is attacked, Orm has no choice but to give in. Even his woman, Thorgunna, now insists on leaving at once – you will see why. And so, finally, they set sail on the ship the men (despite Orm) have been building, the new Fjord Elk. In pursuit of their attackers, yes, but with their eyes firmly fixed on the horde of silver hidden in the wastelands of the Khazar Khanate north of the Black Sea and Miklagard.

What can I say? It is as brilliant and as brutal as the other two books. And this time they find Attila’s tomb is guarded by “Man-haters”.

The arrow that skewered him through the middle of his face came from a shrieking Valkyrie, braids flying, tattoos writhing in the snarl of her long-skulled face as she kicked and turned her shaggy pony towards me, fishing another shaft out.

She was, I was sure, one who could nick the eye out of a gnat at four hundred paces from the back of a full galloping horse and I was a dead man.

Amazons – exactly what this lot deserved! I loved it. So will you.

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