by Makoto Yukimura
published by Kodansha Comics; $19.99 US
When I wrote about Book 1, I wasn’t as impressed by the battle scenes as I was by those of Viking home life. That’s changed in this volume, because the strategy and maneuvering among various factions are more compelling. Vinland Saga is a fascinating read on multiple levels.
It’s the beginning of the 11th century, and the Vikings are invading England. The first chapter begins quietly, as an outspoken mother embarrasses her daughter by ranting about politics — and conveniently brings the reader up to speed on the local leadership. Their encounter with the young, crazed fighter Thorfinn is a reminder of how all this battle, visually astounding and emotionally exciting as it may be, has a human cost.
It’s no coincidence that my favorite chapters are those that feature women. They’re the ones that are the most down-to-earth. They’re also rare, but that’s understandable. As the English mother says early on, “If the menfolk want to have a war, who says the women and children have to play along?” The men are the ones battling to establish virtue through strength and toughness. Their stories are brawny and bloody and great for comic storytelling, but it’s the domestic pieces that provide context. Even if compassion is rewarded with destruction.
More humorous is the one-chapter bonus showing Thorfinn’s over-achieving sister Ylva running the family farm almost single-handed. That one also has an emotional punch underlying the entertainment.
At times, the main story becomes almost superheroic, particularly when Thorfinn encounters the traitor Viking Thorkell the Tall, who has switched sides and is helping the English defend London. He’s ridiculously big and tough and loves fighting. He reminds me of some of the weirder villains from Rurouni Kenshin.
Askeladd, the leader of the band that Thorfinn travels with, is becoming a fascinating character. He’s got his own motivations, often out for his own gain (and sometimes that of his men), but his true loyalties are layered and secretive, particularly once the story introduces Prince Canute. The son of King Sweyn, leader of the invasion, is nothing like his father. (That’s him on the cover, the blond you might have thought was a princess.) For much of this book, he’s a bargaining chip, something to be protected or captured or hidden from those who seek him. His father hopes that leaving him to lead the siege of London will toughen him and make him more of a man (as the Vikings define it), but that wish seems futile.
In amongst all this, there’s still room to ponder religion, as a drunk priest attempts to introduce the Christian message of God’s love to the Vikings, and political strategy, with the use of the prince as a rallying point and symbol. It makes a nice parallelism with Thorfinn’s attempts to revenge his own deceased father, both boys whose lives are shaped by the reputations of their fathers. (The publisher provided a review copy.)