May 11, 2004

The Year of the Warrior, by Lars Walker

This is one of the more fascinating books I've read recently. It's the tale of a viking lord named Erling in the days of Olaf Tryggveson, when Scandinavia was beginning to become a Christian land. Erling is not only one of the first Christian lords in Norway, but also the first Christian in his own domain, and much of the drama comes from the clash of faiths, and the struggles between the followers of Odin and the followers of the White Christ.

To a large extent, it's an historical novel. Erling is an historical figure, as are many of the viking notables he meets. It's also a fantasy novel, for the followers of the White Christ must overcome not only the worshippers of the old gods, but supernatural forces as well. And, most atypically (as I pointed out a few days ago), it's a work of Christian fantasy, and a remarkably good one.

The viewpoint character is an Irishman named Ailill. Having just been kicked out of the abbey in which he had been a novice on account of his manifold sins, Ailill arrives at his parents home just in time to be taken captive by viking raiders. On the way back to Scandinavia the vikings cut his hair in a priest's tonsure, in hopes that with his monk's robes they'll be able to get a good price for him at the slave market; there are a few Christians there, and sometimes they will pay good money to redeem a priest from slavery.

And, in fact, that's more or less what happens. Ailill is purchased by Erling, whose previous priest had been murdered by Erling's father. Ailill is given the choice of coming back to Erling's home and being his priest, with all the risks that that entails, or being sold again. The difficulty is, Ailill's nothing but a failed monk, and one with a serious grudge against God; he's taken no vows and is certainly no priest. But freedom is better than slavery, and he lies to Erling and accompanies him home.

The result is a fascinating, inspiring (and frequently humbling) story. On the one hand we have Erling's political and religious struggles, and as Erling is (after his father's death) one of the great men of Norway during a tempestuous time, that's an exciting tale indeed. And then, on the other hand, we have the personal story of Ailill, failed monk, who must perforce grow into his faith and his role as priest, and learn to care for the flock that God has sent him. And perhaps best of all, Walker doesn't attempt to whitewash history. Erling is (and historically was) gentle in his attempts to convert his people, but King Olaf brings Christ with the edge of his sword. The Church is made up of sinners, then and always, and the result is what you'd expect.

Walker handles the problem of how to mingle fantasy elements and Christianity with ease. He simply feigns that old gods have a certain reality, and that they and other less powerful beings (faerie, essentially) are being displaced by the new religion. The work thus feels all of a piece.

As I say, I found the story humbling--the fortitude and determination of these early Christians in the face of hardship is almost impossible to believe, and yet I know that Walker has portrayed them accurately. It makes me a little less satisfied with myself, in all truth.

I should add, Lars contacted me after visiting this blog, and asked if I would like to read any of his books. I said sure; they are published by Baen Books, who publish a number of authors I quite like, so I figured they couldn't be too bad. I was quite pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this one.

Posted by Will Duquette at May 11, 2004 06:21 PM

Phil said:

Hurrah! A great review. I've wanted to read this one too. I'll have to seek it out now.