I’ve read only 26 chapters of Vinland Saga so far but its quality is such that I have to admit it’s already one of my favourites.
Thorfinn is the main character, an Icelandic warrior joined with a band of Viking mercenaries sailing the seas of Europe and sacking the villages and cities of Norman France and England. His talent as a fighter is chilling, if just because he’s still just a small boy!
This had me hooked straight away. You have this kid (a rag-doll, really) fighting in a bunch of gruesome, heavy battles, cutting the throats of soldiers and decapitating their Captains for the rewards.
It doesn’t shy away from the violence or cruelty of the infamous era of the Vikings, but there’s more to it than just brutality.
Thorfinn is out for revenge. His father, Thors (a prestigious warrior himself, known affectionately as “The Troll of Jom”), was murdered by the very same band of mercenaries that Thorfinn now finds himself amidst. He’s after the life of their leader, Askeladd, but every time Thorfinn challenges him to a duel, he loses; still too young.
The late Thors became a pacifist after the birth of his first child. The last thing he would have wanted would be for his son to avenge his death, but the boy’s anger is blind, and fierce. He doesn’t enjoy the killing or pillaging, but is willing to do whatever it takes to get at his father’s killer.
One is fascinated by Thorfinn’s sense of morality (or lack there of). In a stand-alone chapter, his life is saved by an English old lady, who then takes him into her home. She nurses him back to health, refusing to believe that he’s bad, but later that same evening, Thorfinn fires a signal to his Viking comrades waiting out at sea; they sack the village and kill the old lady. Thorfinn warned her to leave, but she stayed and watched him beckon in her destruction.
Revenge, but at what cost? The image of her standing there freezes Thorfinn in his tracks for a moment or two, but it’s too late, his goodness is being carried away by the tide of violence.
Yet there’s so much more to Vinland Saga. Agendas, politics, war and culture, Makoto Yukimura weaves his story into larger historical events, introducing people renowned for millennia since; one is Cnut the Great, first appearing in Vinland Saga as a shy and sheltered bishonen, yet destined to become the Viking King of England!
It’s interesting to note that the same Yukimura also created the excellent Planetes. To have jumped so seamlessly from science to historical fiction is to be commended, as is the consistent quality of his storytelling, his eye for realism, the ability to craft a deep environment and then to fill it with evocative character-driven images and natural wonders like the Northern Lights. This is a great read.