If you’re anything like me, a very special little ember of joy lights up whenever a fantasy novel begins with a storytelling in a warm and cozy tavern. You can smell the meat on the hearth, you can practically taste the frothy ale…
It’s an age-long device, of course. Sometimes, it’s done to great effect, sometimes not so much. I like it most when the storytelling isn’t just a chronicle of past events, but part of an unfinished story. The storyteller isn’t just a storyteller, but someone very important in disguise.
That’s exactly how The Wolf of the North begins.
It’s got a lot more than that going for it. The setting is vaguely Norse, vaguely Anglo-Saxon, but definitely on the earlier side of the medieval epic fantasy range. Personally, I like that. The grit and realism of the age of the Vikings is, to me, more compelling than the court drama of the late medieval-period themed fantasies (cough! Game of Thrones cough!) It’s like a story taken out of the world of that new BBC show The Last Kingdom (what? You haven’t seen it yet?! Go watch it!)
Anyway… This is a pretty traditional coming-of-warrior-age tale that is reminiscent in some ways of Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song and John Gwynne’s Malice. But it’s unique enough to make it worth the journey. There’s magical artifacts, priests with hidden agendas, and one great romance that defies all the laws of custom and convention. And it’s all written with a lot of love for the main character and the others.
For those who like a bit of grimdark, this tale has enough violence and murky morality to keep you happy, but not too much of it to make the whole thing an exercise in futility (yes, I’m looking at you, GRRM!) I mean, being a berserker warrior is actually a divine gift in this world! How cool is that?
What I also like is that the religion of the world is allowed to exist without every single character having a 21st century attitude of skepticism toward it. Not every priest is a fat, money-grubbing idiot. In fact, the priests are remarkably interesting as a social group. And although there are many gods, clearly the most interesting one is the Odin-like All-father, a god for warriors. The pilgrimage of the young warrior, a journey that tests the young man’s physical and spiritual mettle, was done especially well by the author. The mountain setting of that sequence is breathtaking and visually rich.
If I have any complaints, it’s that not much of the larger story happens in volume one. But it ends with enough of a punch to get me immediately interested in the second volume. Oh, and the great Simon Vance reads the audiobook with so much drama and subtlety! I highly recommend listening to it.
So, overall, it’s a traditional coming-of-age epic fantasy set in an early medieval world of dominated by a warrior caste. The main character does most of his growing up in this book, and so the world is necessarily pretty narrow. But the edges of his known world are about to get blown up, and the Wolf of the North is about to educate the South in the ways of the sword and the berserker!
4 out of 5 stars.
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