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Graphic Novel Review: Northlanders 4: The Plague Widow by Brian Wood and Leandro Fernandez

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Picture the following: A thick white winter covers the Northlands wilderness once again, with unbearable cold. Bloody hand marks on frozen trees, echo the ugly death offered by the plague. Death ships — once filled with Viking warriors and traders – now silently float on the Volga river, carrying nothing but diseased corpses. Black Wolves feeding on a human skeleton somewhere in the dark night. It’s 1020 A.D., baby, and the fourth volume of Northlanders throws you straight into the chaotic midst of it, right from its very first grasping scenes.

Northlanders 4: The Plague WidowHilda — the protagonist and narrator of our story — is a beautiful young woman, married to a loving husband, who is also a wealthy merchant. Together with their young daughter Karin, they live in a Viking settlement, somewhere along the Volga River. Don’t get too pleased with the prospect of a happy Viking family though — it’s not how the story goes. Hilda’s husband is sick with the plague, and soon after a few pages he dies. Hilda is left alone with her daughter, to survive the upcoming hardships of winter and plague.

But is the long winter the worst to deal with? Should the horrible plague be feared the most? Sadly, it’s not. People are the most dangerous factor, and in our story, it’s the characters of Gunborg and his men. Gunborg is the settlements’ muscle, and more importantly, a blood-thirsty violent opportunist, who’s just craving the chance to harness fear and chaos to his own advantage.

Opposite to ruthless Gunborg stands Boris (also quite ruthless, but generally a good guy) – a bald, black-bearded foreign priest (I’m guessing Russian), who serves as an advisor to the old Viking lord of the settlement. Boris is very advent in his ideas and notions as he believes both in god and science. Boris has developed a theory about “communicative diseases” that are passed between people through breath and saliva. Though a priest and a thinker, Boris is also a fierce opponent in battle, and the only one who dares to publicly oppose Gunborg.

When the old leader of the settlement, accepts Boris’ radical suggestion for plague containment, which is to banish all the sick, and seal the settlement to the outside world, Gunborg gets his long waited chance to tyrannize everyone in the settlement.

Disconnected from all their food sources and all other vital necessities, and in the face of the longest and coldest winter ever ahead of them, the small Viking town soon descends into violence, murder, betrayal, burnt houses, killing of the elders (that’s always a super-bad sign) and eventually a total destruction of their community. Did I mention it’s Hilda’s quest to survive all this, in addition to extra special rancor Gunborg holds against her, for voting against him in the town’s assembly (and for being a lone woman in general)?

Northlanders 4: The Plague Widow

The volume is filled with strong impressive scenes; some made me tear (like the death of Hilda’s husband); some made me hold my breath (such as the banishing of the sick, where they turn rabid zombies on each other) or even laugh (quietly and nervously) when Boris shoots a verbal barb towards Gunborg:

“I am just a man with an open mind Gunborg, and a healthy respect for all of God’s creations… Whether it be ‘Wee invisible Creatures’ Or Fat, Corrupt Bags of Goatshit like yourself. God be praised either way.”

The script by Brian wood is easy to follow, and I read it in a breeze. The language is believable in the context of the story’s period, yet it is also straight-forward and modern enough to draw you closer to the characters. You can really understand their motives, because the story makes you feel like the characters could have lived in our times, and we could have lived in theirs; hundreds of years can pass by, but people basically stayed the same.

Brian Wood also explores many interesting and less obvious aspects of life in the Viking era, such as the clash between cultures and faiths. In this volume, in particular, he continues to explore the life of Viking women (the previous arc with female protagonists was the short story called “The Shield Maidens” from the third volume).

Though this volume is by no means any less grim or dark than its predecessors, I actually found it to be the most optimistic one. It ends (minor spoiler ahead!) with Karin (Hilda’s young daughter) discovering a new group of Vikings building a settlement in the woods. Thus, after numerous hardships and a long journey into the unknown, she can finally hope to become part of a new community.

This volume was also less surreal than the others (some previous volumes had delirious protagonists and such), both in story line and in art style.

The art by Leandro Fernandez preserves the series’ regular style, meaning schematic and minimal drawings, dimly colored, with many expressive and beautiful scenes. Fernandez portrays the Viking age with great skill and he is definitely a worthy addition to the remarkable art and artists of this series.

To sum it up, the forth volume of Northlanders is a unique stand alone story arc about Vikings, in a series that portrays them like no other. I’m glad I stuck around during the cold winter of each volume and find myself looking forward to the next one.

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