Monday, August 15, 2011

“Fenrir” by MD Lachlan (Gollancz / Pyr)

Lachlan-FenrirNorse Mythology, Werewolves, Devious Gods. Awesome.

The Vikings are laying siege to Paris. As the houses on the banks of the Seine burn a debate rages in the Cathedral on the walled island of the city proper. The situation is hopeless. The Vikings want the Count’s sister, in return they will spare the rest of the city.

Can the Count really have ambitions to be Emperor of the Franks if he doesn’t do everything he can to save his people? Can he call himself a man if he doesn’t do everything he can to save his sister? His conscience demands one thing, the demands of state another. The Count and the church are relying on the living saint, the blind and crippled Jehan of St Germain, to enlist the aid of God and resolve the situation for them. But the Vikings have their own gods. And outside their camp a terrifying brother and sister, priests of Odin, have their own agenda. An agenda of darkness and madness. And in the shadows a wolfman lurks.

Fenrir takes the story that began in Wolfsangel further along in history, delving further into the mythology upon which Lachlan has built his series. It’s dark, grim, and bloody. And it’s also extremely well written, and exceeded my high expectations going in. I’ve avoided including any spoilers (there are so many surprises in this novel), so my review focuses more on the themes than the events of the novel.

As with Wolfsangel, the historical detail in Fenrir is rich and excellently presented, and the reader is dropped straight into the world (actually, straight into a siege, which was pretty cool). From medieval Paris to the forests and wilderness of this time, Lachlan does an excellent job of evoking the environments and difficulties that face our protagonists.

It is a war-like age, so there is plenty of action and conflict in the novel, and the battle scenes are visceral and often peerless – I’ve not read many better historical/fantasy battle scenes, not to mention varied (some are surprisingly short), and few have as much impact. Lachlan captures the chaos, brutality and sense of disorientation of combat brilliantly. Not only this, the warlike culture of the Norse is dealt with deftly and with interesting nuance.

Central to the series are Norse mythology and the brutalist religions of the time. Christianity in this age is harsher, more fire-and-brimstone, and less forgiving than today’s; and of course the Norse religion is grim, varied, and often warlike. Lachlan does a very nice job of highlighting the differences and, more importantly, the similarities between the Norse and Christian mythologies. At a couple of junctures, we get miniature philosophical discussions between a confessor and followers of the Norse gods, drawing some surprising parallels between the old and new religions and folklore.

It’s particularly nice to see the Norse mythology in a different setting, and Lachlan does a great job of moving it into this timeline; both impressive and also very enjoyable to read. The Norsemen, in stark contrast to the Christians, have a very healthy approach to other religions, quite equal-opportunity: At one point, after hearing of some elements of Christianity that appealed to his more combative nature, a berserker ponders ‘trying this God out’ for a time, and not for a moment thinking his patron god, Tyr, would be so jealous as to take offence and punish him. If only that was the case today...

Despite the brutality and these harsh belief systems at the centre of the novel, it also features some stunning and touching moments of kindness that one would not expect from these people. There are many moments of companionship and comradeship from surprising quarters and between characters you may not expect, which were wonderfully woven into the otherwise grim story.

Two of Lachlan’s greatest talents are characterisation and dialogue. As with Wolfsangel, the characters in Fenrir are brilliantly drawn, and we feel compassion and empathy for most of them. Even the nominal bad guys are not wholly bad. Throughout the novel, we enjoy some great banter between the Norsemen. All the characters feel very real, very quickly. The characters central to the novel – this time’s incarnations of Odin, Fenrir and their love interest (the three needed in the myth and cyclical fate) – are brilliantly drawn, and their interactions and also conflicts are well presented. Their identities are surprising, too, as Lachlan offers up a couple of red-herrings (which is why it’s actually quite difficult to discuss the novel in too much detail – the identity of Fenrir completely surprised me, for example). Other characters, too, are well rounded and realistic, and infused with individual identities – nobody feels like a stock character or two-dimensional. Leshii, a merchant in the novel (actually quite central to the story), has some great, wry one-liners and is almost as opportunistic as Pratchett’s Cut-My-Own-Throat Dibbler. Even Leshii’s mule (perhaps the most tenacious-yet-docile mule ever written) has plenty of character.

Despite what feels like a very slight lull after the action-packed opening scenes, events move quickly, and the momentum steadily builds as the story progresses. At the same time, although I read it quite quickly, I felt more like I was savouring it than rushing. Lachlan’s writing and prose have improved since Wolfsangel, and are now even more captivating and atmospheric.

There’s less of the Stygian darkness that characterised Wolfsangel, but there is still plenty on offer – from the practices of the Raven, to the machinations of the gods and their pawns, and also the machinations of various mortals. Wolfsangel laid the groundwork of Odin-worship, the importance of sacrifice and pain to the acquisition of magic and knowledge. Fenrir has a slightly more conventional feel to it, not needing to revisit over much, and our characters take part in their own journeys – physical, emotional and metaphysical – and must overcome their own tests. Readers who thought Wolfsangel sometimes got a bit too bogged-down in the details will find that Fenrir enjoys a much quicker pace and better overall momentum.

As I said above, there are plenty of surprises, as once again the roles we may predict turn out to be red herrings. It’s great that, even though we know there has to be some similarity to how greater events unfold, Fenrir feels wholly new, and never once did I think I was reading a re-hash of Wolfsangel, set in a different age.

Fenrir is brilliant, improving on its predecessor and promising very great things for the third instalment, Lord of Slaughter. Lachlan brings the novel to a stunning, wholly satisfying conclusion. Upon finishing, all I wanted to do was read more. Truly excellent.

Very highly recommended.

Also on CR: Interview with MD Lachlan (the first on the site, in fact)

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