Friday, July 12, 2019

Haakon: The Golden Ax, a review

No man could defeat him.
No woman could resist him.

Alas, I had high hopes for this one, being a sucker for all things Viking fantasy (is this a subgenre? If not, time to coin one. Broad-and-battleaxe? Skald-and-shieldwall? Leave your suggestion below). It sounded great. From the back cover:

Warrior, leader, lover, conqueror… HAAKON.

OUT OF A VIOLENT AGE, when longships and broadswords rule the earth, comes the mightiest Viking warrior of them all—Haakon the Dark.

I'm in.

Haakon started out with a bang, a desperate ship-to-ship battle in the North sea. This was the best sequence in the book. I don’t know if there was anything quite like these old longboat battles, with crews of desperate Vikings leaping over the rails and murdering each other, with drownings and maimings and mayhem miles from shore.

A spear drove down toward Haakon. His shield rose to meet it. The spearhead pierced the leather-covered wood, nearly skewering Haakon as it flashed by his ear. He swung the shield, and the shaft of the embedded spear lashed through the ranks of the enemy. A man screamed and clapped his hand to his face, where jaw and cheek and one eye were bloody wreckage. One of Haakon’s men closed in and struck with an ax. The man’s screams died as his head lolled on his shoulders. The thud of the falling body was lost in the swelling uproar of clashing weapons and cries of panting men.

Outrageous that these wild combats actually occurred. Not a bad start.

After the initial carnage the battle scenes are not as well-depicted or as plentiful as I’d hoped. I guess I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Bernard Cornwell, who does the desperate, fear and sweat drenched press of shield wall combat better than anyone. Author Eric Neilson’s prose is workmanlike.

Haakon flags terribly in its second half, once Haakon returns home to Norway with his booty and the willing English maid Rosamund under his arm. Like Arnold in Conan the Destroyer, my prevailing thought plowing through interminable dialogue and dickering was, “enough talk!” There’s too much Haakon lounging around his deceased father’s steading, pondering whether to launch a pre-emptive strike on Ivar Egbertsson who has designs on his lands and his lady. Politics and perception stays Haakon’s hand, but he’s forced to take action when Ivar’s men steal his beloved Rosamund.

Haakon could almost be classified as sword-and-sorcery, with its action-oriented central hero, gritty historical setting, and light touches of magic, which possess a bit of the weird unpredictability that makes for good S&S fiction. But the feel isn’t quite right to me. I’d place it in the category of historical fantasy. Haakon the Good was a historical figure and served as king of Norway circa 920-961, but nothing in the first book bears any resemblance to the events of his life.

Spoiler alert: Haakon culminates with the rescue of Haakon’s beloved Rosamund following a pitched final battle and the promise of more adventure in Book 2: The Viking’s Revenge. I may read it yet, sucker as I am this kind of fiction. But overall Haakon: The Golden Ax is sadly well outside the rarefied air occupied by the likes of The Broken Sword, Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, and Eric Brighteyes

Perhaps worth a read if you enjoy the Northern Thing.

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