The Whale Road by Robert Low
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
THE WHALE ROAD is the first in a series by Robert Low concerning the adventures of Orm and the Oathsworn, a band of vicious Vikings whose journeys take them all around the world.
The first thing you notice about this story is the level of violence. It makes Bernard Cornwell's writing look positively tame in comparison. There's death, destruction and hand-to-hand combat on every page, with an emphasis on the visual and visceral. There's also an incredibly high body count, the highest I've ever encountered in a book, and you start wondering whether anybody will make it out alive come the end.
The plotting and backstory isn't as important to Low as living in the moment, detailing a life set in miserable, cold surroundings punctuated by moments of extreme violence. The essence of the adventure is a hunt for the treasure of Attila the Hun, but at times it feels like a Macguffin, designed to keep the characters ever-moving.
There are flaws, particularly early on. The opening chapter is muddled, introducing a large cast while at the same time portraying some back story involving a fight with a polar bear. This makes for very confusing reading, but thankfully the rest of the story takes place in the present. The supporting cast is filled with larger than life characters, although the best is Hild, the sole female in the book who casts a long shadow over all the rest.
At its best, the story reminded me of Herzog's AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD, depicting a dwindling group of survivors seeking out their doom, with the presence of death ever near. Low's writing is excellent when it comes to describing action, and a rooftop chase is a particular highlight. Now my appetite has been whetted, I'll be on the lookout for the follow up, THE WOLF SEA.
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