15 July 2011

Fenrir

I’ve just had another book review published in Interzone:


Fenrir by M.D. Lachlan, Gollancz, 504pp, £18.99 hb / £12.99 trade pb

Fenrir is the eagerly awaited sequel to M.D. Lachlan’s first fantasy novel, Wolfsangel, which was published to much acclaim last year (see my review of that here).

The new novel is nothing if not action packed. It opens with an army of Vikings led by King Sigfrid besieging Paris in 885/886 ad. Chief among their demands is that Count Eudes hand over his sister, Aelis. Naturally enough she is not willing to sacrifice herself to them. Torn between love of his sister and a sense of duty to his city, Eudes has summoned the holy monk Jehan to persuade her to accede voluntarily to the Vikings’ demands. However, Jehan fears that she is to be literally the victim of a pagan sacrifice and that surrendering her to such a fate could imperil all their souls.

But the besieging Vikings are not alone in wanting Aelis. The Viking Prince Helgi of the Rus has also heard of her and has sent the wolfman Sindre to Paris to offer her his protection. He arrives just in time to protect her from a band of berserkers and a sinister shaman, Hugin, who clearly wishes to see her dead. With Sindre’s help, she escapes from the besieged city. Thus the scene is set for an epic journey across war-torn northern Europe as Aelis tries to reach the safety offered by Helgi with the berserkers and Hugin in hot pursuit.

Also drawn unwillingly into the pursuit is Jehan. Originally blind and crippled, he is unable to avoid being captured by the berserkers. While their prisoner, he is forced to eat human flesh in a mockery of the Eucharist, an incident that initiates a horrific process during which he is gradually transformed into Fenrir, the apocalyptic wolf of Norse mythology. I found Lachlan’s portrayal of Jehan and his inner struggle against what is happening to him utterly convincing. In spite of the change that is overtaking him, he never abandons his Christian faith and continues to resist the transformation to the very end of the novel.

In the course of the journey, Aelis, too, undergoes a dramatic transformation. It appears that, together with Hugin’s sister, the prophetess Munin, and Helgi’s daughter, Svava, she is one of the bearers of the twenty-four runes that constitute Viking magic. Initially this manifests itself in small ways such as her ability to control horses. However, with Munin’s death, she becomes a sorceress of considerable power. I must admit I found the ease with which she adapted to her new situation far less convincing than Jehan’s struggles.

But Aelis, Jehan and Hugin are just pawns in a larger game being played by the god Odin. In Wolfsangel, his plan to become incarnate and so provoke the apocalypse was thwarted by Loki’s meddling. Now he is trying again with these characters who it appears are (loosely) reincarnations of the dramatis personae of Wolfsangel. And Loki is once more doing whatever he can to frustrate Odin’s designs. Essentially the same drama is being played out again, but in a very different setting.

My main reservation about the novel is its unremitting darkness. Apart from a few touches of (dark) humour and one major romantic interlude, it is a tale of inexorable descent into tragedy with little sense that anything has been resolved at the end of the story. On the contrary, it merely seems to set the scene for another round of the conflict between Odin and Loki.

In spite of that, Fenrir has a lot going for it: plenty of action, strong characters and vivid description. Lachlan’s refreshing take on magic – that power is achieved through suffering – is again evident here. Since it is a sequel, the reader’s understanding of forces at work beneath the surface would be greatly enriched by previously having read Wolfsangel. However, the story is sufficiently independent of its predecessor for it be read and enjoyed on its own.

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