I fondly remember an archaeology seminar in university wherein half the people in the class, in the course of the discussion, came out officially as Viking enthusiasts, myself included. Theirs is a faraway memory of adventure, action and life on the edge.
That being the case, the draw of a title and cover like that of the Whale Road by Robert Low was a powerful one to me. The fact that it has been praised by Bernard Cornwell, whose Saxon Stories series have set the style for Viking yarns, was a promising sign.
The Whale Road features Orm, living in a village in Norway, who has recently distinguished himself by being lucky enough to slay a bear. His father Rurik has recently returned from years at sea, under his captain, Einar. Impressed by his good luck and the omens of his deed, Orm is brought to join Einar, Rurik and the other Oathsworn, who wander the sea – the Whale Road – raiding distant lands for relics sought by one of the great trading cities of the Eastern Baltic. But Orm can read Latin, and reads in some of the relics they steal signs of what they all add up to: a story that tells the location of the lost treasure horde of Atilla the Hun!
Moving through the great trading centres of Eastern Europe, the Oathsworn follow the obsessed Einar as they face competitors, strange omens and each other’s own demons and agendas on the way to find this treasure, and whatever doom it might bring with it.
Now, from a summary like that, you’d assume that it is an incredibly lively and gripping epic, and indeed I’m sure there is one in here somewhere, but it’s extremely hard to see. The writing is quite dense with prose and exotic names, to the point that it becomes hard to follow. I’m still unclear about just what happened with Orm and the bear at the beginning, and near the end, the Oathsworn are suddenly a part of a medieval Russian army besieging a rival city, and I have literally no idea how they got there or what it had to do with anything.
Characterization is weak, so that I had a great deal of difficulty at times remembering who was who. I actually forgot for long stretches what the main character’s name was and I had to look up the other names I mentioned above before I could add them to the review, and I finished this book about an hour ago.
Orm himself doesn’t have much to distinguish him; in fact, he seems to be more of an observer than anything else. He’s a bit like Ishmael in Moby Dick, but Low keeps giving him various life-defining experiences as befits an active protagonist. And then, of course, I stopped thinking about him while he focuses on everybody else, so that they didn’t have lasting impact. For a kid living in the back of Norwegian beyond, he also seems bizarrely knowledgeable about the politics of 10th Century Europe. It reminded me of Merlin in the CrystalCave, but Merlin was living in a royal court, not a quiet village.
As an expose on the Viking era, its politics, beliefs, its material culture and its living conditions, it is quite magnificent. The set pieces and behaviour that characterize the time and place are certainly very vivid. It harkens back to a time when the world was still very big, and the exotic nature of goods from afar give it a vibrancy difficult to imagine today – which was always my favourite thing about history. Seeing into that era, particularly the bloody and gruesome options for dying and the horrific existence of exploitation experienced by women are like getting smacked in the face. However the story that runs through it is not as strong as it could be. The writing is murky, motivations unclear, the themes are vague and the ending a bit predictable.
All in all, it was something of a disappointment. Low definitely knows his history, and he cares passionately about it. I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. I actually regret not enjoying his book more, but I feel as though he spends too much time showing off the history and not enough telling a story. Bernard Cornwell has the same virtue of research but his storytelling style is the other way around; the story is informed by all the history, but the history is secondary.
If you are interested in the Viking era, by all means have a crack at it, but Cornwell’s Saxon Stories are as well-researched and also much more fun to read.