Swords Of Good Men

by  Snorri Kristjansson

Reviewed by Adam Armstrong

Neil Gaimen's American Gods is generally the novel that comes to mind when you think about the clash of ancient and current belief systems. His novel had the old Norse gods, amongst others, battling with the modern gods of the television and the internet. It is a fantastic book and worth the read. But there is only a small amount of human involvement in the book. And the gods work their messages through men, generally men with swords. Kristjansson was less interested in looking at belief systems and more interested in the men at the heart of the battle.

Ulfar and Geiri are nobles that are traveling the known world due to a youthful indiscretion that lead Ulfar to be exiled from his home for a few years. The two are cousins by blood but consider each other brothers. Their last stop before returning home is the town of Stenvik. Stenvik is a heavily fortified town that has an unseen internal trouble brewing. Upon arriving Ulfar falls in love with a beautiful woman only to find that she is the wife of the town's greatest warrior and possible future chieftain. The two also befriend the blacksmith who has his own hidden, troubled past. But these will quickly be the least of their concerns.

On one side of Stenvik, King Olav Tryggvason of Norway is making his way across the land, forcing the belief of the White Christ on inhabitants or killing them. His army grows daily but is unstable as it makes its way toward Stenvik's heavily fortified walls. On the other side are dozens of ships full of multiple armies. These armies are bound together by a woman named Skuld who speaks for the Norse gods. She has enough magic to make men fall in line but she is orchestrating a battle for a very specific reason. 

Geiri is critically wounded in an accident. Before the leaders can react to the accident, Skuld's warriors begin attacking Stenvik. Stenvik's walls are thick and its warriors are strong, but as they are worn down repelling Skuld's warriors, King Olav is riding toward Stenvik ready to spread the word of the White Christ, or to spread the blood of Vikings.

Kristjannson made an interesting choice in creating this tale using some real history, such as King Olav Tryggvason, and mixing it with Norse mythology, such as Skuld, who was one of the fates. While there is a lot to mine from the Norse mythology, we are instead treated with a Viking world so richly created it swallows the reader whole. Again this was a fresh an interesting choice to make versus reviewing gods and their various battles. By time you get through the first few chapters you will have a good picture as to how life was lived by the Vikings, their politics, and their preparations for war. 

We are given multiple viewpoints (perhaps too many at times). With the exception of a few of the minor characters, none of the rest are really painted as bad guys. Each is given reasons for doing what he feels is just. It is truly amazing for a first time novelist to fill a book full of such a rich milieu and multidimensional characters. Kristjannson puts the reader in a weird spot where they want to cheer for everyone, even on opposing sides, and every warrior that falls in battle wounds us a little.

The novel isn't perfect. As I mentioned there are too many viewpoints, it skips back and forth quite a bit and there are some perspective switches that lead to confusion. There are way too many bombastic speeches crammed into the book as well. While there are some memorable things said, the reader is hit with too many and it all jumbles together. The movie Braveheart has a very memorable speech and has seeped into popular culture, but the writer's were aware enough not to add any more. If you make such a strong impression with one thing said, you will rob it of strength with more and more similar attempts. Also all of the forces converging on one town leave us wondering why. Stenvik's main advantages are its fortifications, which are targeted during the siege. 

There is never an attempt to shy away from gore and violence in Swords of Good Men. While this adds another layer of realism I think it desensitizes the readers a bit. We are overwhelmed by the violence from about the midpoint on, and when the more important characters are wounded or killed it just doesn't pack the same punch it could have. 

Overall this was a very well written novel for a first time novelist. It is a good bit of historical fiction, looking at how King Olav forcibly spread Christianity in Norway, mixed with mythology, Skuld and the Norse gods, and straight up war/fantasy fiction. The description of the Berserkers alone is worth reading the book. It is the first of a trilogy, and if the next two are as half as good as the first they are worth a read.