God of Vengeance by Giles Kristian

2014 will prove to be a cultural warzone fought between devotees to the First World War’s centenary and Norse fanatics, stirred into life by a recent television series and the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibit in the British Museum. God of Vengeance will undoubtedly stock the larders of the latter, but deserves far better than simply being categorised for this. Far from being an opportunistic exercise by a jobbing author writing his sixth piece of historical fiction, God of Vengeance has a simplistic but engaging, fast-paced narrative that should outlast any sword-and-sandal fads.

As the title would suggest, the story’s protagonist, Sigurd, the youngest son, is forced to seek revenge for his family when an unexpected turn of events sees his kin betrayed by their liege lord. Sigurd is prompted to lead his paltry band of warriors against insurmountable odds in attempts to rescue his captured sister, slay the offending jarl and ultimately claim his blood-price from a traitorous king. Sigurd, a ‘man whose wyrd would make the gods sit up and take notice’, is bound as much to the ethereal as he is to the temporal; his task is not only to seek honour from avenging his murdered father, but also to draw the eye of the chaos loving Allfather, Odin. His entry into Valhalla depends on earning the latter.

It’s a story of revenge, undoubtedly, and its conclusion (bearing in mind this book is the first in a series) is fairly predictable. Kristian’s narrative, however, is not. Far from this following the course of recent Game of Thrones spin-offs, God of Vengeance’s plot advances quickly and brutally. There’s very little here that mirrors the British Museum’s take on Norse domesticity, Kristian instead prefers the 3 Fs (fighting, fornicating and [self-]flagellating), and he handles all three masterfully.

The book is narrated in the third-person and remains remarkably detached. Battle scenes take on a Virgilian aspect, rich in gory detail and the glory bestowed on the warrior, but provides very little in the way of emotion. For readers who’ve grown used to character-nurtured plots, this may be hard to swallow, but Kristian’s writing speaks of a healthy Aeneid devotion that allows his story to progress at a rate.

Sigurd himself is a self-possessed young man who takes his Odin-favoured status as an entitlement to play-out acts of supreme arrogance, such as taking lead over his battle-hardened ‘uncle’ Olaf. His attitude, however, matches a society that could demonstrate extreme cruelty and remorselessness and is therefore an appropriate, proportionate response. Being Odin-favoured, it turns out, is more of a curse than a blessing, and whilst Sigurd barely has time to reflect on his own lot, the reader does, and cannot help but be endeared to this stoic underdog.

Despite our thirst to understand Viking life in the terms of our own ‘civilised’ society, our need to transfer our feelings is just a symptom of our own insecurities with history. Kristian is under no such illusion, and God of Vengeance is an energetic, and often exciting, portrayal of a society that drew favour with the gods from exacting the blood-price.

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