Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Demon of Scattery, a review

I’ve had the Poul Anderson/Mildred Downey Broxon collaboration The Demon of Scattery (1979) sitting on my bookshelf for ages, and this past weekend I was finally able to take it down, dust it off, and breeze through its lushly illustrated 207 pages in a few hours. It wasn’t really what I was expecting, both in a good and a not so good way.

I think I hesitated reading it all these years because of its cover. It features a sorceress summoning up a snake-demon, though not the kind of sorceress I prefer—there’s far too much Marion Zimmer Bradley and not enough Weird Tales in her attire (yeah, I’m kind of shallow like that. And I have been known to judge a book by its cover).

I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge the book, of course, as the tale does not contain the scene depicted at right. Instead, what you get is a historical fiction-infused fantasy tale set on Scattery Island, a real place off the coast of Ireland. Uninhabited today, it once was home to a monastery that was subject to a few Viking raids in the ninth and 10th century. According to historical notes at the back of the book, the Vikings raided the monastery in 816 and 835 AD but then did not return to it for more than 100 years, despite the fact that Scattery Island was a strategic location for launching raids on the mainland. Scattery was also said to be home to a monster named Cata that once prowled its coastline, which may have been the reason the Vikings later gave it a wide berth. In short, the historical record contains plenty of raw elements for the makings of a fine tale.


The story is pretty grim. It features an Irish nun, Brigit, who is captured in a raid by the Dane Halldor, who commands three longships on a voyage of plunder along the coast of Ireland. Despite very rough treatment at the hands of the Vikings Brigit is a good Christian and nurses Halldor’s son Ranulf back to health after a monk staves in his head with a rock. Later, and despite her growing feelings for Halldor (who is more at home on the deck of a merchant ship and longs to leave the Viking life and take Brigit home as his mistress to live peacefully ever after), Brigit invokes a powerful curse on the raiders and summons Cata from the deeps to exact revenge. In between are some bloody raids and the clash of pagan vs. Christian beliefs.

The book features a framing device lifted from a minor scene in Anderson’s fine novel The Broken Sword. Skafloc, hero of that novel, and Irish demigod Mananaan MacLir relay the events of The Demon of Scattery to pass the time during a long sea-voyage. After encountering the pair on the opening pages of The Demon of Scattery I was hopeful that I might have stumbled upon another The Broken Sword, but unfortunately, The Demon of Scattery is not at that level. The prose is decent but not up the caliber of Anderson’s best Viking works, including Hrolf Kraki’s Saga and War of the Gods. Not knowing who wrote which sections, or whether it was a true collaboration, I can only infer that The Demon of Scattery must have been written largely by Broxon, a relatively obscure author who published mostly short fiction and a few essays in the 1970s and 80s (though she apparently also wrote a sequel to the wonderful H. Rider Haggard novel Eric Brighteyes under the pseudonym Sigfriour Skaldaspillir. Who knew?)

My copy features over 50 pages of interior black and white line art by Alicia Austin. To be honest, much of it is rather uninspiring, though it’s somewhat medieval in feel and has a dated charm.

If you like Viking inspired historical fiction and are looking for something quick to pass an afternoon, I’d recommend The Demon of Scattery. But you’ll do much better with any of Anderson’s solo works.

8 comments:

David J. West said...

Cool Brian. Like you I have had a copy sitting around for years and I kept putting it off. I had hoped it was a deleted scene of The Broken Sword but...

Brian Murphy said...

It's worth reading David, but it's no Broken Sword. Then again, very few works of fantasy are.

francisco said...

hey have you read the viking novels of authors like Giles Kristian and Tim Severin?

Brian Murphy said...

No, I haven't read those Francisco. Are they worth checking out?

francisco said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
francisco said...

they're publishing them now in Spain, they have been compared to Bernard Cornwell and Harry Sidebottom, historical adventures with a hint of fantasy

Lagomorph Rex said...

Thats very interesting to find out that she is who is responsible for writing a Witch's Welcome. I always did wonder about that.. If you can get them cheap you might want to check out Anderson's "The Last Viking" as well.

Brian Murphy said...

I've got The Last Viking #1: The Golden Horn, but haven't read it yet. It's in the TBR pile.