I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Life is savage aboard a Viking raiding ship. When Orm Rurikson is plucked from the snows of Norway to brave the seas on the Fjord Elk, he becomes an unlikely member of the notorious crew. Although young, Orm must quickly become a warrior if he is to survive.
His fellow crew are the Oathsworn---named after the spoken bond that ties them in brotherhood. They fight hard, they drink hard, and they always defend their own.
But times are changing. Loyalty to the old Norse Gods is fading, and the followers of the mysterious “White Christ” are gaining power across Europe. Hired as relic hunters, the Oathsworn are sent in search of a sword believed to have killed the White Christ. Their quest will lead them onto the deep and treacherous waters of the whale road, toward the cursed treasure of Attila the Hun and to a challenge that presents the ultimate threat.
By Loki’s hairy arse, this book is best read with a shot or two of Akvavit to get one in the mood for death and destruction. Because there’s lots of both to go around.
Apparently the Oathsworn are like a cross between an urban street gang and the Mafia—once you’re in, it’s next to impossible to get out and your many acquired enemies will remember you forever and show up when you least expect them. Forget the whole “band of brothers” idea—these guys are held together more by an oath to Odin than to any personal loyalties.
Orm is no hero, but he keeps getting through situations that he realizes should have killed him, starting with being attacked by a formerly-captive polar bear, the accidental survival of which gives him his nickname, Bear Slayer. Unfortunately, Orm knows that the epithet isn’t deserved and yet it places a target on his back—many men will want the glory of being the one to defeat the Bear Slayer.
This is very firmly a man’s world—women feature only as wives (not seen very often), as witches (there are a couple of those), but mostly as thralls (slaves) suitable for housework and humping in the otherwise all-male camps. It is also a very violent world, filled with blood, guts, and shit—not a very glorious depiction of the battlefield. I appreciated the outlook that Low gives to Orm, that real battle is nothing like the glorious sagas of Norse culture. Other authors have explored the idea that heroes are actually people who have blundered through the danger of battle and survived only by luck (if you consider the survivors to be the lucky ones), like Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five, for example. Low is no Vonnegut, but he certainly takes the glamour out of the battlefield.
I was interested to note that the author participates in Viking re-enactments during the summer season. Perhaps this helps with the depictions of the parry and thrust of his battle scenes in the book, which were very realistic. Nothing like actually being part of a shield wall to give him the language to describe it.
I will definitely be reading book two, The Wolf Sea, to see where Odin leads young Orm next.