Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Hammer And The Cross by Harry Harrison and John Holm

Now I have made him who is greatest
among the Swedes root like a swine!
I had no high hopes of this book. Perhaps from such low expectations comes a truer appreciation, but maybe not. The author has written a great deal, some of which I like, some I don't. It's a work of historical fantasy, which I generally avoid. It takes a mythological character in Ragnar Lodbrok, himself likely an amalgam of other Nordic and Icelandic heroes, and wraps a new mythology around his death and the lives of his avenging sons, which makes me tut and sigh, patronisingly. And yet, serendipity smiles upon it and upon me. 

To explain, I live in South Wales, a largely ex-industrial area in what some might consider to be a small adjunct to the United Kingdom. It's a beautiful place, with a broad and interesting history, and because it can't be trusted to govern itself fully, is slave to the whims of right-wing, petty mindedness that passes for a Conservative government in England. Thus, its libraries, once hubs and hearts of communities, are left to moulder and collapse, their stocks sold off surreptitiously at first but then overtly, to pay for 'upkeep' or to clear space for 'development' which is code for being sold off.

Now, I ordered this book from a bookseller in the United States as a result of Googling 'Ragnar Lodbrok', as a result of watching the History Channel series Vikings. This trilogy came up, and, lo! it's author was a familiar name. The hardback arrived, and, lo! on the title page was the library stamp to the right there. Rhondda. From the South Wales valleys to the States and back. And as I say, such serendipity cannot be ignored. My mind was open and accepting, and it was duly repaid.

Of course, the story of a young English thrall named Shef, and his pseudo-magical ability to read the course of history and tap the unrecognised barrel of historical knowledge and from whence draw plans for mighty war machines not to be seen on these shores for a good few hundred years in reality smacks somewhat of old Slippery Jim's ability to magic himself out of any situation. Fortunately, again, Harrison's reliance on generous suspension of disbelief has been tempered by the contributions of John Holm, a.k.a Tom Shippey, medievalist and renowned Tolkien scholar whose diligence and research shines through in places where Harrision's boundless enthusiasm threatens to run amok. Perhaps this is why it takes three novels for Shef to traverse his parabola from thrall and bastard son of a Viking invader to... Well, that would be spoiling things, wouldn't it.

And so to the conclusion. I was rapt, enthralled (in the good, non-indentured way), and eager to read through to the end as fast as I can, and that can only be an endorsement. It might be down to my receptiveness of the currents of fate, engendered as they were by my own reasoned if nonetheless irrational biases, but at the death it's close enough to the historical tales of the invasions of these isles by the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians of old to be believable, if you can discount the visions of and interventions by the Gods of Norse mythology, and to boot it's fast paced, thoroughly bloody and battle-filled, and of course we win! Sort of...

3 comments:

  1. Is it worth the £80 from Amazon UK?

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    1. E.g.
      https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/offer-listing/0099868202/ref=sr_1_1_olp?ie=UTF8&qid=1491478231&sr=8-1&keywords=harry+harrison+hammer+and+the+cross

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  2. Er, I'd look a little further afield. I got mine for £3.80 including postage from a second hand bookshop in New York.

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