Abaddon Books, 351 p. $9.99
We're rather fond of vikings here at Adventures Fantastic, so when I saw this in the store, I knew I had to at least consider giving it a try. After reading a sample in the middle, I took it home (after paying for it, of course) and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
While I've not gone in much for the current zombie craze, that might start changing, especially if I can find more stuff that's this well written. For a first novel, Toby Venables sets himself a hard act to follow.
The story concerns a grew of down on their luck vikings, led by a man named Bjolf. The book opens with a raid on a small village. The only problem is a rival crew of vikings got there first. Bjolf and his crew end up fleeing for their lives, but not before acquiring a stowaway, a thirteen year old boy from the village named Atli, who just wants to escape his overbearing father.
Pursued into a fog, Bjolf and and his men lose their bearings and are only able to find land after a raven lands on their ship and they follow it to shore and into a fjord. They're not sure where they are, but it's no place they want to be. This is something they quickly discover when one of the crew is attacked by a draugr, an animated dead body. Seems the woods are crawling with them.
Still pursued by their rivals, they managed to escape both the draugr and the other vikings. Fleeing into a tributary of the fjord, they end up at a stockaded settlement, where they are welcomed as heroes come to rescue the people. That's not quite what they had planned to do.
Bjolf and his first mate, Gunnar, have two continuing conversations throughout the book. The first is what would be the best country (i.e., one without a price on their heads) in which to settle down on a farm with a large farmhouse and a large woman in the door. (I'm not being sexist; Gunnar, a large man, actually says that at one point.) The other conversation concerns whether a man controls his own destiny or is at the mercy of fate.
The people are led by Halldis, daughter of the former chieftain, who was killed by his slave Skalla shortly after the draugr began to plague the people. Skalla now demands tribute each month from the remaining villagers. He's working for some masters on an island further up the fjord. These masters are viewed as sorcerers and as the source of the draugr infestation. Of course, Bjolf and his men eventually do stay to help.
This is a book with many stories contained within the larger story arc. For Atli, it's a coming of age story. For Bjolf and Halldis, it's something of a love story, although given the situation, that never develops into a major plotline. But mostly it's a story about friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice. And fate. And heroism. Oh, and did I mention sacrifice?
Venables does an outstanding job of balancing a large cast of characters. The crew is more than just window dressing and red shirts, to be killed off when convenient to the plot. About a dozen of the crew are given personalities and histories. And while many of the ones we get to know don't make it to the end, at least not alive, their deaths aren't just for cheap shock. The men feel each loss, and the reader does too.
On the other hand, juggling so many characters is a difficult trick. Venables doesn't always pull it off. His viewpoint character shifts not only from chapter to chapter, but often several times within a chapter. The chapters are short, and this can be a little disorienting at times.
This being a zombie novel, and a viking one to boot, there's a pretty high gore factor. If you're squeamish you'll want to keep some Pepto handy, because this book is worth reading. It's not one long zombie fight, although there should be enough to keep most zombie fans happy. Instead the focus is on the characters and how they change throughout the course of the novel. Venables keeps things from sliding into silly most of the time, although I did find the flesh-eating ants to be a bit over the top.
One thing you should be aware of, though. Your understanding of the situation will change completely within the last fifteen pages. Some readers might feel cheated a little by the twist at the end, when the identity of the masters is revealed. Be prepared to have your chain yanked. I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone, so that's all I'm going to say.
Viking Dead was a fun read. Toby Venables will have a bright future ahead of him if he continues to write like this, especially if he improves throughout the course of his career. If you like a bit of zombie mayhem with some depth; if you like vikings; or if you like both, then you'll definitely want to give this one a try. It's part of a series called Tomes of the Dead. They've got a novel by Paul Finch in the lineup, so I'm going to at least have to try that one. I have yet to read anything bad by him. There are several others in the lineup that should appeal to fans of heroic fantasy. Abaddon Books is a British publisher, and from what I can tell a subsidiary of Solaris Books. Seems like our friends on the other side of the pond are publishing some good stuff.