Updated 31 May 2020.
Eric Schumacher, Forged by Iron. Olaf’s Saga Book I. (Legionary / Next Chapter, 2020) Ebook. (ARC).
Most books I read and review for The Viking Archive are on my bookshelves. The author graciously offered me an advance copy. Please note I do not charge or receive any compensation for the reviews. All opinions and views in this review are my own.
The Novel versus the Sagas
Last year, I reviewed the trilogy of Hakon the Good by Eric Schumacher. Last month, he published the novel, Forged by Iron. It is the first volume in a new series. Here is another Norwegian king. Another legendary figure from the tenth century. And his name is Olaf Tryggvason.
Olaf Tryggvason’s life is an astonishing sequence of events. Born to a petty king in Norway, his father is murdered when he is still a babe. His mother flees with him across the Baltic Sea and Olaf lives to see the Viking world from Scandinavia to the land of the Rus’. He is a slave, a warrior, a pirate. He sails from northern Europe to the British Isles before circling back to his fate: the throne of Norway. Olaf is the epitome of a Viking.
That is, if everything the sagas say is true. But we know that sagas are literature. Even if there is the odd fact mixed with all that fiction, we cannot always see it. In rare cases, that odd fact may be confirmed by an archaeological discovery, but for the rest the sagas are like other stories. They tell a tale that has been told many times before. And Eric Schumacher does the same, like the saga writers of old, taking liberties in rewriting Olaf’s story and by doing so, creating an intriguing and fresh angle.
Rewriting the Gaps
A new angle is possible as there are many gaps in Olaf’s life. It is a source of freedom and creativity for any writer of historical fiction. Yet, it is also a pitfall as implementing ideas that do not quite fit the overall plot. There are no such qualms in this novel. The author takes firm control of rewriting the gaps and keeps the storyline plausible at all times within the overall story. This is only possible if you have done your research, and know your source material very well. Then, it doesn’t matter if Olaf’s mother took him across the Baltic Sea, or if Olaf grew up in Norway and only left by the time he was a teenager. Whether or not you know the sagas, it will not bother you whilst reading the book. Finish it first and then read the ‘Historical Notes’ at the end to understand why certain things were changed.
All things good about the Hakon-trilogy also return in Forged by Iron. The Viking Age atmosphere. The attention to detail of daily life. The sharp dialogues. Another fine touch that adds depth to the novel is the point of view. This time it is not the king, but a lower nobleman, Torgil. In this first novel, it is all about childhood and transition to adulthood. The unexpected and reluctant bond by oath between two children propels the story forward. Through Torgil, the reader observes Olaf and the impact of his actions on others, as well as the uneasy undercurrents between the boys. Their struggle for seniority, leadership, and between their characters heightens the already tense atmosphere, especially in their time as slaves.
The overall storyline is convincing. The chapters are clear and concise with intriguing starts and tantalising cliff hangers. Even the calmer parts during their flight from Norway have a sense of need, of urgency. The time in slavery is appropriately eerie and unsettling, showing all the horrors and human strengths and weaknesses. That Olaf at one point escapes and is out of the picture for a while, does not even matter. The other characters easily fill the void and the pace never drops.
A well-crafted book is a joy to read. If the novels about Hakon were good, Forged by Iron shows that Eric Schumacher has raised his game to yet another level. This is historical action at its best, well-written and fast-paced. Worthy to be mentioned among the best of them.
Listen to the author reading the start of the book in a recent podcast.
Verdict: a very fine read.