Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Nothing comes free or easy. The good life always requires a turn through the shit from time to time."
Ain't that the truth? Some turns are shittier than other, and the good life is not guaranteed.
Each one of these self-contained Viking sagas is as exceptional as it is varied: you never know what you'll find dug up from its history and hammered into narrative next. Here Brian Wood conjures ten generations of Icelandic family feuding beginning in 871 A.D. when its earliest settlers - a family of three - heaved their scant possessions salvaged from Norway onto its far from fecund soil. Life was hard but at least they were free. Within a year, however, they were followed by others driven out by the land-grabs back home, fleeing the rule of hated King Harald. These were larger families bringing strength in numbers backed up by the weight of their swords.
So it is that Ulf Hauksson's merchant father takes it upon himself to toughen his son up in the most brutal of fashions, thereby creating a monster.
"Neither of them could look at me for weeks.
"This was valuable time for me. It allowed me the chance to detail and catalogue my hatred, to fully articulate, in my mind, who deserved what and why.
"That morning my parents had a son. By that evening, as a result of my father's efforts to teach me cruelty and violence, they had something very different on their hands."
What follows is that afternoon's legacy: two centuries of ever-escalating struggles for power as the population expands and sustainable self-governance crumbles under the weight of numbers, the influence of those still in thrall to Norway and corruption in the form of Christianity and its Holy Men with their insidious schemes to divide, conquer and then reap the spoils in the form of hegemony and wealth.
Marriage plays no small part in this. Indeed it's all about family and two fathers are going to find out precisely how sharp the serpent's tooth is before their lives are done.
Structurally, 'The Icelandic Trilogy' is stunning. Three chapters each devoted to three separate snapshots spanning two hundred years. The first barely boasts a population to speak of, but by 999 A.D. a port has been established and the Haukssons have built a heavily fortified compound.
It isn't, however, impervious. Here is a daughter:
"I was taught to keep books when I was six years old. I am literate where Mar is not. The Hauksson men fight, the women administrate.
"And together we dominate. The society of Iceland is balanced on our stacks of silver and gold, our sword at its throat.
"Which makes the attempt on my life unthinkable."
The family's gained ground through guile and good judgement, but it's not immune to being goaded - and it's about to meet its match. As for 1260 A.D., it is to despair but then so it goes, eh?
NORTHLANDERS has played host to a magnificently strong set of artists and Azaceta is on glorious form in his tale of innocence bludgeoned to death, while Zezelj's jagged plains of ice and snow and treacherous, shadow-strewn ravines are freezing. You wouldn't cross them without a thick pair of boots. His hair and beards are as matted as you can imagine and probably crawling with lice. There's one page which starts out with a lamb so startlingly lovely you wonder what it's doing there - it's quite the contrast to what's gone before. By the time you reach you bottom, though, you'll be thinking, "Oh, well, that makes sense!"
This volume also includes 'The Girl In The Ice' illustrated by Becky Cloonan, Brian Wood's cohort on DEMO, 'The Sea Road' and 'Sven The Immortal'. There are more of these thicker "books" repackaging the slimmer "volumes" to come, but in the meantime Brian (personal favourite graphic novel being LOCAL with Ryan Kelly) has returned to this era on very fine form with BLACK ROAD illustrated by Garry Brown, whose first collection is out now and reviewed by our Jonathan.