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Graphic Novel Review: Northlanders Book 3: Blood In The Snow by Brian Wood

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For the most part, I consider Northlanders to be a highly unique comic series; it’s a grim, realistic historical drama, about the clash of Norsemen and Saxons, back in the much legendary Viking era. I’m not sure everyone is likely to enjoy it (due to its grimness and lack of superheroes of any kind), but I personally find it extremely refreshing, especially when craving a good read that is different from the usual escapist fantasy.

The third volume of Northlanders: Blood in the Snow – is definitely the best volume in the series so far. It’s comprised of four stand-alone short stories – each a unique and different point of view of different people who might have lived during the Viking era. All four stories are beautifully crafted and satisfyingly concise, with a decent sense of closure, and also strangely moving, in a subtle hold-back, desperate-emotions-stirring-underneath way.

The volume starts with a pretty intense story, set around the Viking raid of “Lindisfarne” in northern England. Our protagonist – a miserable little boy named Edwin – lives with abusive father and older brother. One night, all battered and starved (courtesy of pappy dearest), little Edwin does not return home; instead he heads down to the cold beach, where he intently prays to the pagan gods of his dead mother, the ones that “mean business,” and also are far more lively than the tortured god whom the monks preach about. His prayers for freedom are magnificently answered in the form of Viking boats emerging from the foggy ocean, filled with fierce Norse warriors, about to descend upon the Saxon shore and slaughter the entire settlement – Edwin’s father and older brother included.

Flash forward years later – our boy Edwin is now a man – and he is the only Saxon-born redhead warrior amongst his fellow Norse warriors, in the war party he now leads. He had found his freedom and solace as a Viking warrior. Though Edwin had been named after a Christian king, in his heart he always belonged to the pagan gods, and even as he honors these gods, he still cherishes the silver cross he collected from his father’s dead body many years ago. Such is the clash between Pagan and Christianity, through the eyes of one boy in this intriguing story.

The second story – “The Viking Art of Single Combat” — takes place on two different levels. One level occurs in the drawings, where a single duel between two champions of two feuding lords is depicted. The other level is the narrating voice, pondering the various types of warriors you would have been likely to encounter in battle had you lived back then. For instance, there are the mushroom-stoned berserkers (don’t be so shocked, some bad-ass Vikings did mushrooms). Then there are the simple farmers who were unfortunate enough to be levied to war by their lords; and let’s not forget the famous of all – the pirating Viking entrepreneurs.

These petty fights amongst the Viking lords themselves – were probably foretoken to the Vikings’ eventual demise – and in accordance to that notion, the story ends with the alleged words of Harald Sigurdsson, a Norwegian king whose death is said to have heralded the end of the Viking era – “From copse to copse I crawl, and creep now. Worthless. Who knows how highly I will be heralded someday?” – Frankly, I’m not even sure what that means, but it sure sounds pretty.

What about women in the Viking era? Surely they had a real tough life as it is, let alone the whole occasional ravaging going around. The third story called “The Shield Maidens” is a beautiful story about three Dane women who fled their occupied village – husbands, children, homes – all dead and burnt to the ground. They are chased by a war party of fifty Saxon warriors, but the three stand their ground and fight– which is pretty exceptional for women, especially back then I guess – to make such a stand. The story is entangled with beautiful quotes from Norse poetry, where the first and last scenes show the three women spinning wool (or weaving the fates of people – who knows?), just like the fates-women from the mythical prophecy.

“Sven the Immortal” is the last story of the volume, in which we meet again with Sven – the fierce protagonist from the first volume of Northlanders. Now, decades after the events of the first volume, Sven is an old man, but is also a living legend of much renown. When a group of young Vikings land on the isolated island where Sven and his family live, we will find out whether the Viking still lives inside the old man.

The art of this volume is outstandingly beautiful. Each story is illustrated by different artists but all make an effort to maintain a more or less uniform style. The drawings are mostly sketch-like, with much use of shading, and colored by dark muted colors, successfully conveying the roughness and hardship of it all. 

This volume ended up being such a good read, that I actually read it twice, and wouldn’t mind reading it again. It’s definitely for people who love Vikings (who doesn’t really?) and are willing to hit Wikipedia here and there, in order to better understand the numerous historical references in these wonderful stories.

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