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The Oathsworn Series – Robert Low

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It strikes me that I may have been a little remiss in my reviewing. (Major understatement alert.)

It has been quite some time since I began the literary journey that is Rob Low’s Oathsworn series, and yet at no point have I reviewed them. My bad, Rob. My – as they say – bad…

Time to rectify the situation. You see, I’ve had my copy of Crowbone waiting to be read for ages, and finally, while on my recent research trip, I found the time and got stuck in, which instantly reminded me of why I love this series and spurred me to this blog post.

If you are not already aware of Rob’s work and this series, then allow me to enlighten you (though you may glean some of this from the pics and titles of the 5 book covers above). Robert Low is a Scottish author, rightly renowned for his two series of books: The Kingdom series which deals with the Scottish Wars of Independence under the Bruce, and the Oathsworn series, which follows the misadventures of a Viking crew. Rob is an imposing fellow. He has been involved in Viking reenactment for many years and his build and looks will immediately have you picturing him swinging an axe and shouting imprecations at Loki. He looks like he should write Viking books! And yet, with a varied, fascinating and very literary background, that imposing image is tempered by the discovery that it contains a witty, urbane raconteur, who can entertain a room with merely a look. Given that, imagine what he can do with a tale…

The Oathsworn series is fascinating, in that each book feels like a personal journey of the character involved, truly authentic-feeling and absorbing. They do not feel like novels with carefully constructed plots and intricately built characters. That is not to say that they are not, mind. They just don’t feel like it. They feel like a man’s life being revealed to you once scene at a time. Therein, I think, lies the truly unique nature of these books and what makes them a work of art rather than a series of books. Authenticity in even the feel of the text.

The series follows the life and exploits of one Orm ‘Bear-slayer’, initially a somewhat nervous and reluctant youngster, and I will give a short paragraph about each of the five books here. If you are worried about spoilers or finding anything out too soon, feel free to stop after book 1, or however far you’ve read…

1. THE WHALE ROAD

The first tale of the oathsworn sees Orm’s earliest adventures, in which he earns (doesn’t he?) the name ‘Bear-slayer’ and finds himself taking the Odin oath of the crew of the Fjord Elk under the impressive Einar. If, like me, when you think of Vikings, you think of Scandinavia, Denmark, northern Britain and the islands thereabouts, you’re in for a surprise. The Whale Road takes us in entirely opposite directions, heading to the eastern Baltic and European Russia. Here you will learn a great deal about the Vikings that takes you far from the Norwegian raiders you are likely familiar with. Rob’s clear knowledge of the era and the peoples of whom he writes comes through educationally in the book without ever feeling like he is having to teach you. I repeat that the books all feel like a skald’s tale of a man’s life. So, The Whale Road takes us east on a quest to find the ultimate treasure of the age: the silver hoard buried with Attila the Hun. In a tale that nods in the direction of a Viking Indiana Jones, We are on a treasure hunt, on which Orm will lose many friends, make new ones, learn much about himself and grow from a boy into early manhood and ultimately find himself at the very top of the heap, and wishing perhaps that he wasn’t. The book, like most of those that follow, is told in the first person, lending it a real feel of being inside Orm’s head. In essence, book 1 is a treasure hunt, an engrossing read and a powerful debut novel, filled with deceptive priests, witch-women and Odin-oathed raiders.

2. THE WOLF SEA

Now leading the oathsworn and beginning to appreciate what Einar went through, Orm finds himself on a new quest to retrieve his sword, which contains the only ‘map’ to the great silver treasure of Attila. Taken from him by one of the many adversaries who weave in and out of this entire series, Orm and the somewhat depleted Oathsworn crew head south into the great city of Constantinople and beyond, into the deserts of the Levant region. If you never thought of Vikings all over eastern Europe and the Russian steppe, you certainly will never have thought of them in the Syrian desert. But with the villain Starkad and the troublesome priest, Martin, involved, nothing was ever going to be easy. Orm’s first real test as a leader is a brutal one and is perhaps one of the principle reasons that throughout the series, Orm repeatedly attempts to settle and quit the raiding life, though the Norns have a different weaving for him. Book two, then, has moved on from being a treasure hunt into a man-hunt, though there is always the overshadowing presence in the background of that great silver pile that everyone wants and only the Oathsworn can find. Orm has grown up a little, though he is still a young man and probably too young to be in the commanding position that he occupies. Book 2 is a perfect follow-on from book 1, maintaining the same feel, the ongoing threads of the plot and villains from the first, and is an equally absorbing and fascinating read.

3. THE WHITE RAVEN

A book that will always stand out of the series for me simply for being the first appearance of Crowbone! The White Raven picks up several years after book 2 and finds Orm and his Oathsworn settled and attempting a land-bound life. As always, though, Orm’s path is prickly, and the Norns will not allow his thread to stay settled for long. When one of their women is kidnapped, the Oathsworn take to the whale road once more to retrieve her and get more than they bargain for. Retrieving her and freeing the curious young displaced prince of Norway – Crowbone – from enslavement on the way, they soon find themselves once more in Russian (Rus) lands, captured by a powerful prince and facing agonising death unless Orm relents and leads their captor back to that cursed pile of Silver buried with Attila. The third novel finds the crew of the Fjord Elk back on the trail of their first exploits, this time with Orm in charge and grown into a capable leader. With the entertaining and mesmerising character of Crowbone along for the ride, this is the best of the the first four books in my opinion, and sees old familiar faces return for both good and evil, and some new fascinating ones too. The descriptions of the dreadful conditions they face slogging out across the steppe stay with me several books on. While still maintaining the same feel as the first two and fitting seamlessly into the series, White Raven to me represents a step up for the series and shows that the Oathsworn saga has legs for more tales yet without losing any freshness, even merely in the tying up of loose ends. It’s a bravo! opus, this one.

4. THE PROW BEAST

By now the Oathsworn have achieved fame (and/or infamy) across the whole Viking world and the long-suffering and reluctant Orm finds himself and the Oathsworn once more ripped from an attempt at settling and thrown into the action. Orm finds himself responsible for the protection of a queen bearing the unborn heir to the throne of Sweden, only to have an old enemy reappear and ravage and burn his lands, ship and hall, forcing the surviving Oathsworn and their charges and women up into the hills. Soon, though, they are set upon a duel quest to retrieve the young man given to Orm’s foster care by his own Jarl, Brand, and to put an end to that loathesome enemy that has caused all these fresh troubles. This quest will take them away from the sea once more, marching south across eastern Europe, up a dangerous river, rather ‘heart of darkness’ style, not at all sure that they are strong enough to survive it, let alone achieve their goals at the end of it. The Prow Beast is, for me, the bleakest of the Oathsworn books and, while just as well written and absorbing as its predecessors, I found it a little harder to read because of the unremitting unpleasantness of the plot and the Oathsworn’s position. The light that shines in this darkness, though, is once more the inclusion of the excellent Crowbone character. A strong read, if bleak, and a perfect continuation of the series.

5. CROWBONE

And so we come to the (currently) last book in the series. Crowbone is something of a departure for Rob’s Oathsworn. While officially the 5th book in the series, it feels more like the first book in a new series that is perhaps a spin-off, or a sequel series? Not only does this book focus (as the title suggests) on Crowbone, with Orm as more of a supporting character, it is also written in the third person instead of the first, which gives it a very different feel. To be honest, it makes it a much easier and powerful read, if it perhaps loses a fraction of the depth of feeling that the others had. Having read that sentence back, it looks to me as though I’m criticising it or putting it down in some way. I’m not. Quite simply, Crowbone is now my favourite Oathsworn book. It grabs the reader by the eyeballs and drags them headlong through the action. This novel focuses on prince Olaf of Norway (aka Crowbone) who is now grown to young manhood and seeks the axe of Eirik Bloodaxe to affirm his right to the throne currently occupied by a usurper. Crowbone is one of the Oathsworn, but now, the older, wiser and very self-assured Orm places the young man in command of a ship of his own and sends him off on a quest for the axe. The action here continually switches between three groups all on the same quest and racing for the prize: The Oathsworn of Prince Crowbone, the crew of another would-be-King of Norway – the dispossessed son of Eirik Bloodaxe, and a group of killers accompanying the Oathsworn’s oldest antagonist – the despicable priest Martin of Hammaburg. Yes, there are three crews belting around the Baltic, the North Sea and the Irish sea this time, visiting Ireland, Mann, Orkney, the coast of Continental Europe and finally into Arctic Finland. And in between, we are occasionally treated to scenes of Orm and his men. This is both a race to a prize and a coming-of-age story for young Crowbone, who is driven to depths that actually distressed me a little and made me dislike the man at times. Crowbone maintains the power and the authenticity of the first four Oathsworn books, but throws in new elements and a fresh, ‘headlong rush’ feel. It is at the same time a wonderful continuation and a bright departure. It is simply a great read.

* * *

And now for a few more notes on the series as a whole:

 

Characters. There is a high body count in this series. It is wise not to get too attached to any crewmember. It’s been a while since I read the earlier books, but a few characters still stand out, such as Einar and particularly Gunnar Raudi. But as the series develops, even ignoring Orm and Crowbone, there are some truly awesome characters that fill the rowing places of the Fjord Elk. Red Njal will always be a favourite character, as will Finn and his sword, The Godi. The supporting cast changes often and die with astonishing regularity, but there are always strong characters in there, and you will doubtless find a few favourites, as I did.

Watch out! If you are of a nervous disposition, you might want to skip the series. The Oathsworn books are truly violent and pull no punches in terms of gore, the unseemly activities of sea raiders and even their language. That’s just my stock warning. This lack of pulling punches is part of what gives the series its power and feeling of authenticity. If you’re happy to read about axes in heads, the rapine of seafaring peoples and lines like ‘Row, f**k your mothers!’ then read on and enjoy. I did.

Just like the rolling supporting cast, over five books the series develops a number of villains, some of whom are brief, while others are a continual thorn in Orm’s side. To be honest, somewhere in the middle of the series there were beginning to be enough of them that I had to concentrate a bit to remember who was who when the bad guys came burning, kidnapping and causing trouble. But the most important ones stand out as loathesome and despicable, and you’ll get to exercise your ‘hate muscle’ a little. Mind you, given the normal life and activities of the Viking raiding party, you might occasionally wonder whether the good guys are actually any better than their enemies. After all, they’re all just people really. The greying of morals is again part of what gives the books their feeling of authenticity.

The Fjord Elk. Get ready for the Oathsworn’s ship. You remember the USS Enterprise? How many times have Kirk or Picard blown it up or crashed it? And yet there’s always a new Enterprise to be built and christened, flown into danger and then blown up again? Then you’ll be right at home. The Fjord Elk is a name, not a ship. It gets passed on with every new vessel that bears Orm’s prow beast. The Oathsworn’s ships have a terrible habit of being burned, sunk or otherwise wrecked.

Right. I think that about covers it. What a long impromptu post. If I’ve not persuaded you to try the Oathsworn, then I bow to your resistance. Orm and Crowbone’s adventures deserve your attention. Give them a read, I urge you.

And now, back to some writing of my own.

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