Page 45 Review by Stephen and Jonathan
"The Holy Island.
"In this bosom of our Lord, we slowly smother."
A radical repackaging of what was our fastest selling series of Vertigo collections half a dozen years ago, the stories are presented in a completely different order. Jonathan preferred 'Sven The Returned', I 'The Cross + the Hammer, then also 'Lindisfarne' and 'The Shield Maidens'. What this means is that even though the basic theme is Vikings, Brian Wood is bursting with wildly different and totally unexpected takes on the times, from the role of women in the Viking world and Christianity in a Saxon society. In fact if there is a theme running throughout these disparate stories it is the various different beliefs of the day whether religious, secular or societal:
"Sometimes the Fates favour you. But you never take it for granted, never get complacent, because with a flick of their wrist they can sever the thread that is your life. Fate is relentless."
That quote comes from the narrator of 'The Shield Maidens', one of three women who take a stand which surprises even them against the Saxons re-taking Mercia from the Danes. After slaughtering a Saxon scout they take shelter from the other fifty-odd warriors in an old Roman fort, abandoned by all because no one understood the craft of masonry enough in order to repair the stonework let alone build another. Surrounded by water, they are protected at high tide, only some are more resolute than others. Yet still they make preparations for the inevitable attack because they've just realised something vital about the numbers involved and it may just give them a fighting chance.
That one's drawn by Zezelj, by the way, and its mists and silhouettes are as haunting as you'd expect, whereas Dean Ormston has gone for something completely different but no less striking in 'Lindisfarne' as crows circle and snow falls over the Holy Church. It's a life made all the bleaker for young boy Edwin by both his father and older brother whose 'cruel to be kind' philosophy in showing him how to defend himself with a sword he can barely lift manifests itself in a way we'd term abusive. It does, however, stiffen his resolve. Just not in the way that they'd hoped.
The Cross + The Hammer
Outrageously clever and like nothing else I've read set in the early 11th Century, this is more like an episode of Cracker with bows, beards and bramble than some feuding families riddled with lice. And no, you don't have to have read the first book: it's set far from there in the rolling wilds of Ireland, magnificently rendered by Ryan Kelly, Brian's travelling companion in LOCAL.
Ragnar Ragnarsson, Lord of lands, Dublin, is heading the chase of a one-man death squad, the seed of an insurgency against King Sigtrygg. For months now Magnus has been slaughtering Ireland's occupiers and it's up to Ragnarsson to use all his formidable tracking skills and newfangled theories of human psychology in service to the King to bring the man down. There's only one problem: he's wrong.
The man is not alone: he's travelling with his daughter, sometimes carrying her piggy-back to leave but one set of tracks, and intent only in fleeing those in pursuit to keep her from harm. But Magnus is worried that his impulse towards violence in his daughter's defence is beginning to overwhelm him. He has rages and blackouts which Ragnar may, if cunning enough, be able to use against him.
It's swift, bloody and beautiful, with quite the revelation. Just remember my first line, is all I'm saying.
Sven the Returned
"At least give me a sword."
"You think you deserve a warrior's afterlife? I have spent most of my life doubting the existence of Odin's hall, of the Norse afterlife, and I confess I still do not believe it exists. But do I dare take that chance, that one day when my life comes to an end and it turns out I was wrong... that, after all, I find myself walking through the great doors of that feasting hall... to find you sitting there?"
I guess that'll be a no, then!
Sven, our eponymous hero, is a deeply troubled man on a personal mission, even if he doesn't really know what that mission is, at least yet. He just knows he needs to do something having heard the shocking news that his father has been killed by his uncle Gorm to take control of the family wealth and the title of tribal leader. Having left his tribe and family behind on the Orkney isles as a young lad to seek adventure and visit far flung places such as the 'Great City' Constantinople which was widely regarded as the centre of the civilised world circa 980 A.D., he now feels the inexorable urge to return. Although the reasons behind that emotional pull back to his homeland seem to have far more to do with the manner of his leaving than any immediate need for revenge.
Wood makes it easy to imagine that this is exactly what life must have been like in Viking times, full of hardships and privation, fears and superstitions, with loyalty to tribe and fealty to a strong leader paramount for survival. His story telling is perfectly paced, the dialogue suitably blunt and strident without ever resorting to Viking cliché. And we are carried along by Sven's emotional journey, which ultimately is about someone finding their own place in a changing world, not merely fulfilling the role they are born into. Throw in a couple of unexpected and gruesome plot twists, a rather inconveniently timed mini-invasion by a Saxon expeditionary force and we have a great story.
I really have to congratulate Davide Gianfelice on his artwork too. He demonstrates a fastidious eye for detail throughout and a wonderful sense of spacing and perspective, frequently using a slightly elevated position to great effect, which becomes particularly apparent in his landscapes and especially his battle scenes which flow from panel to panel seamlessly like cinematic pieces, never seeming cluttered or confused as lesser artists often do. His facial expressions are masterful with appropriate emotion rendered into every illustration from merest hints of deception and guile to full-on mouth-foaming berserker rage. And if that were not enough the colouring really brings everything off the page and almost into the third dimension, from choppy, rolling, slate-grey seas capped with white-tipped breakers, and blood-red spattered carnage overlaying a pristine white snowfall, to glimpses of the gaudy hues of Constantinople itself, it is gorgeous stuff.