Who knew Vikings were so emo?

As a huge fan of Brian Wood’s Brigg’s Land and Rebels series, I wanted to check out his earlier work and picked up this Viking saga set in a A.D. 980 on the Orkney Islands of Scotland. Norseman Sven, who has been banished from his ancestral home, returns home after his father’s death to claim his inheritance. 

Told in non-linear form over the course of eight chapters, we first meet Sven as a petulant only child of a father who is constantly away from home as he pillages up and down the Irish coast for riches.  An envious local farmer attacks Sven’s mother and although Sven had known about the threat, he is not home to defend her. She curses him for his cowardice and he runs away from home only to be kidnapped and enslaved.  After a few years of hard labor on a ship he is sold to a merchant in Constantinople. There he grows to manhood and becomes the lover of Zoe, the merchant’s daughter, who sets him free. As a soldier of the Varangian Guard he learns from a passing Norse ship that his father has died and his uncle has claimed his inheritance rights.

Sven decides to head home to claim his birthright and leaves Zoe forever. His uncle has absolutely no intention of giving up his leadership, and Sven becomes a rebel, terrorizing the villages to get his uncle Gorm to concede.  It is the riches that Sven really wants, as he does not want the leadership role, for he views his ancestral home as backwards and too tied to pagan rituals. The military tactics and battle scenes were interesting and appropriately bloody. But some of the narrative is uneven and Wood has his characters use terms that are modern and were jarring to be used in this Viking era.

While in hiding he meets Enna the last of her clan who is tied to the coast and ancient rites, but before he commits to her he is an absolutely selfish beast to Thora, a woman he sexually uses and throws away.  Sven is not likable in the least from his childhood on, and the tired trope of a good woman taming a bad boy is used here. So I wasn’t rooting necessarily for Sven’s victory, but for Enna’s. I really liked the last few pages, for it finally showed a mature Sven making decisions that weren’t just for his own ease and gratification.

The artwork was a mixed bag. It was at times very evocative of the Constantinople opulence with a more red and orange color palate and then the ruggedness of the Scottish islands with a duller blue green color aesthetic. Research was certainly done to capture the landscapes and clothing styles of the era. But the artist seemed to have an issue with eyes- in several crowd panels he didn’t give them to people, instead they were just smudges, as if he didn’t take the time to draw in final details. It was done again with Enna in a close up, and while her eyes had been blue when we first meet her, they were distinctly green in the last panels. Plus, the way Sven’s beard grayed dramatically from when he first returned to Orkney, made me keep checking the dates to see if many years had passed, but no- it was all one year.  These little inconsistencies added up and took away from the art as a whole.

I have to admit if this was the first time I read Brian Wood’s work, I would have stopped here. I caught glimpses of fine writing within the narrative, but he has certainly has grown as a writer since then, and now gives women a more equitable and balanced representation than he did in this story. While I did enjoy a glimpse back to my Scottish ancestry (I’m a bit of everything) and the relationship between Sven and Enna, this is a series (that continues on with different characters and dates) I will not continue.

-Nancy

Image result for northlanders sven the returned
Wood, Brian & Davide Gianfelice. Northlanders: Sven The Returned (V1). 2008.
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