May 13, 2004

Blood and Judgement, by Lars Walker

Here's another book by Lars Walker. It's an ambitious concept, though I'm afraid he doesn't quite manage to pull it off.

Here's the set-up. Will Sverdrup is a high school English teacher. He's currently teaching Shakespeare's Hamlet; he's also a member of a local theater group that's just starting a new production of Hamlet (Will's going to start in it.) And then, during rehearsal one evening, something exceedingly odd happens.

First, Will finds himself in pre-Christian Denmark, in the body of a buff young dude named Amlodd, whose uncle has just killed Amlodd's father and married his mother. Will--

But I must digress for a moment. It seems that the original source for the tale of Hamlet is a 13th century manuscript by a fellow named Saxo Grammaticus. (Given his name, one can only imagine that our Saxo was writing things down when writing things down was a great eccentricity.) In Saxo's version of the tale, the star's name is Amlodd. But back to our story.

Will is familiar with Saxo Grammaticus, recognizes where he is, and somehow has to deal with it. Meanwhile, all of his relations not surprisingly think he's mad.

Meanwhile, and for no obvious reason, the rest of the theater company find themselves in a very odd place--a castle of vague outline that seems to want to become Hamlet's castle of Kronborg in Elsinore. Something in the air seems to want them to act out Shakespeare's play for real, quite possibly including all of the deaths at the end. But there are some wrinkles. To begin, Will Sverdrup isn't there, being in Amlodd's body in the real Denmark--but Amlodd is there in Will's body, and let me tell you he doesn't know how to behave in polite company. And then on top of that there's one other person there, the son of one of the cast members, a sullen teenager who has acquired an interesting set of new powers.

As the book progresses we get to follow first Will in Amlodd's body, then the company in the faux-Elsinore, and so on, as little by little we learn just what the hell is going on.

There's a lot about this book to like. The scenes with Will in Denmark are generally quite good, and the contrast between Will's views of what is right and proper and those of Amlodd's friends and relations is intriguing. And by far the best passage in the book concerns Amlodd's sojourn in England, a section which is told in third person so that it's unclear whether we're watching Amlodd as he would really have been, or Will in Amlodd's body.

The sections in the faux-Elsinore are less satisfactory, though Amlodd's difficulties with 21st-century manners and morals are a nice counterpoint to Will's problems. Walker has tried to draw the members of the theater company from all of the philosophical schools of modern America, so as to comment on each, and I'm afraid it doesn't work. It would take a longer novel to really flesh out each character; instead, several of them evolve into rather absurd caricatures (I'm thinking especially of the sullen teenager's father). The points Walker raises are valid ones, but it's hard to get past the characterizations.

Also, I'm not entirely happy with the portrayal of Christianity in the book; in some places it seems tacked on in a way that it simply doesn't in The Year of the Warrior. Will Sverdrup, in particular, is supposed to be making a moral and spiritual journey in the course of the book, a journey that ends in his conversion, and I'm afraid it seemed a little contrived. I hasten to add, though, that my concerns are literary, not theological.

Finally, the ending didn't satisfy me. The denouement denoue'd on schedule, but it wasn't quite clear to me why or how things worked out the way they did.

But no matter. The book held my attention right handily, even in the weak parts, and I rather enjoyed the good parts.

I've got one more of Lars' books left to read; I'm looking forward to it, and I gather that a couple more are in the works. I'm looking forward to those, to, the moreso as one of them is evidently a sequel to The Year of the Warrior.

Posted by Will Duquette at May 13, 2004 08:44 PM