Review: THE LAST BERSERKER by Angus Donald, Canelo

ISBN e-book:  978 1 80032 186 1        £3.99 

Paperback: 978 1 80032 187 8 £8.99

I am not big on Vikings. I read a lot about them in the 1980s, but there was not a lot in their history that grabbed my attention. I was always more drawn to the first kings of England, and their bold attempts to defend their realm against these brutal invaders.

Not that the Viking only attacked the UK’s shores. They raided, raped and razed villages and towns all along the coasts from Normandy to, it is thought, North America. William the Conqueror’s father, Rollo, was a successful Viking who settled in Normandy after raiding for years. Others travelled to Russia, and set up trading concerns with the local folk. The Vikings were the globalists of their time!

However, no matter what my views on such matters, a new book from Angus Donald is always worth having a look at, and this is no exception. 

The Berserkers were the terrifying fighters who would throw themselves into battle, against any odds, in the attempt to win renown and glory. They were fearsome warriors when they stood against their enemies. The battle at Stamford Bridge saw the Saxon army held up by one berserker, who (according to legend) slaughtered forty of Harold’s men on the choke-point of the bridge before he could be killed. It gave his comrades time to form a shield wall on the other side of the river.

Angus Donald has taken this theme and wound about it a fabulous story. Bjarki has committed murder, trying to defend his woman from a trio of local bullies, and has been condemned to death, when a travelling trader arrives and buys him, paying off the families of the victims and saving his life – why, Bjarki does not know.

The one-eyed traveller who saved him is Valtyr, a mysterious figure, who takes Bjarki with him through the north of Europe, visiting towns and cities, listening to all the gossip about the new Christians and their King. They journey to the north, with a young woman, Tor, who soon demonstrates her skills as a fighter, whether wrestling in a ring, or attacking with weapons. And soon Bjarki discovers that he is to be one of the chosen – he is being taken with Tor to be tested to see whether he can become a Berserker with the others. It’s not an easy training, and they must endure hardship and brutal treatment before they are accepted. Many never succeed, they don’t find their gandr, the divine spirit that gives the Rekkars their ‘fabled strength and reckless courage’. They have a duty to protect the great ash tree, Yggdrasil, the first tree that gave birth to all the forests of the world. 

But while they are at the tree and training, disaster strikes. Tor’s impetuous ambition leads to their being rejected by the Rekkar, and he and Tor must leave. That, of course, is only the beginning.

This is a sweeping saga, a wonderfully imagined adventure that takes the reader on a journey from the small fishing village where Bjarki was born, to the heart of the new Christian empire. On the way Bjarki and Tor must contend with treachery, oath breakers, monsters and deal with the central mystery of their lives.

A wonderful story, brilliantly told by one of the best historical writers – what is not to like?

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