Friday, July 07, 2017

The Age of the Orc

. . . is often coming, but never quite seems to get here. Scott Oden's new historical fantasy novel A Gathering of Ravens, however, brings it as close as it's ever been.

While this is not the first time that Oden has tackled writing from the orcish point of view - the short story "Amarante" in Skelos II is another example - it's certainly the most ambitious. The story follows Grimnir, who is definitely an orc even if the word is never used (the neologism kaunr is used for Grimnir to describe himself, while other cultures use skraelingr, orcneas, or fomoraig) - murderous, crude, and bloodthirsty. After kidnapping an incredulous Christian traveler as a guide, he sets off from his lair in 10th-Century Denmark in search of the Dane that killed his brother, Grendel.

Well, almost. The brother's name is actually Hrungnir and his killer's Bjarki (a name that, like Beowulf, means bear), but the parallels are undeniable - Hrungnir's arm being displayed along with his head is just one of the more obvious. I was delighted to note there were even shout-outs to more modern versions of the story - at one a Dane begins reciting the famous poem from the film The Thirteenth Warrior ("Lo, there do I see my father . . . "), and certain spoilery facts of Bjarki Half-Dane's backstory are somewhat reminiscent of the 2007 Beowulf film.

Another appearance of the White Tree.
But Beowulf isn't the only piece of meat in this literary stew. There's some Tolkien, of course - a tale about an orc could hardly avoid him - but it's surprisingly superficial. There's a scene with some dwarves (taller than Grimnir!), one of whom is named Nori; and there's a section with a willow-spirit who, in addition to acting like close kin of Old Man Willow, uses heraldry described similar to Gondor's.

In terms of overall style and theme, though, A Gathering of Ravens owes much more to Robert E. Howard than to J. R. R. Tolkien - not just little things like the dog named Conan and the Viking that swears by Crom, but the way the cosmic conflict between paganism and Christianity (not for nothing, I think, is the Battle of Clontarf the climax of the book) forms the background of a personal revenge story, in which the actors shake out in some surprising directions. Not to mention the action and combat scenes, which richly evokes the hard-scrabble life-or-death struggles such events would have been.

Overall, as someone with both an interest in fantasy fiction and medieval history this book was a joy to read - it's obvious the author is well-read on both the historical and mythical background of Viking-age Europe. I have heard that Scott Oden intends to pen more adventures of Grimnir the Last Orc, and can only say the sooner the better.

Favorite line: "This was no game of thrones where generals sacrificed and maneuvered on the backs of their soldiers; this was the most primal sort of conflict - Odin's weather, the red chaos of slaughter - where men stood breast-to-breast and shield-to-shield, and dealt the same blows they took in kind."

I see what you did there!