S.J.A. Turney's Books & More

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Posts Tagged ‘sweden

Warrior Lore

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Something a bit different for you tonight. Something a little removed from the usual historical fiction. Scandinavian history is one of my more peripheral hobbies, rather than something I focus on. I have a basic grasp of the history and the lore, and I love the 13th warrior and The Vikings. I enjoyed the novels by Giles Kristian and Rob Low. And I loved running my fingers over the carvings of Viking names in the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. But really, all that is VIKING stuff. Scandinavian, yes, but thoroughly Odin-based ship sailing, axe-wielding, treasure-hunting, monastery-sacking rape-and-pillage merchants.

So this short collection is different in two very important ways. Firstly, it’s not a novel. So remember that before you rush out expecting it to be one. This is a collection of Scandinavian folk tales translated in verse from old forms. It is, in essence, a book of translated poetry of Scandinavian epic style. Secondly, it is not about Vikings. In fact, despite a few famous names turning up in it and the obligatory appearance of trolls, it actually bears much more resemblance to the medieval tales of King Arthur. This is more a collection of tales about unfortunate knights, swooning ladies, evil tricksters and some disastrous misunderstandings that end in very Hamlet-esque scenes of utter carnage.

These tales are, in short, tales of Christian medieval Scandinavia, twisted here and there with the addition of more ancient lore. Even the famous Harald Hardrada turns up here more resembling a medieval baron than the last of the great vikings.

Clearly Cumpstey knows his subject and the language, and the translations are therefore pretty much spot on, easy for the reader and seemingly close to the original feel. Here and there, it feels as though the translation has hit a pebble and detoured, but that is the problem with translating something as personal as poetry. It is not straightforward and what sits well with one reader might not appeal to the next.

Each of the tales in this book is introduced by the author with a little background and explanation, though about halfway through, I decided to skip the intros and read the poems first, since I had realised I was going into every tale already knowing what to expect. And when I did this I had more fun, picking the story from the poetry and then reading the intro afterwards to confirm things and find out what I’d not noticed.

So to sum up, this is a lovely little collection that covers a subject I doubt many of us are particularly familiar with and does it with grace and panache, and a great deal of academic knowledge pressed into it. It won’t necessarily suit those of you who read your historical works to watch Romans cleave barbarians into pastrami, but for those of you with an interest in the skaldic lore of medieval Scandinavia, or just those who feel intrigued, it is a nice collection to read.

It now sits on my kindle next to my collection of Imādu d-Dīn Nasīmī’s works. Boy, am I starting to look clever!

Written by SJAT

February 9, 2015 at 10:03 pm

Sweden is revolting

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Well not quite, but it could have been, in the 18th century. I’ve just finished this:

The Stockholm Octavo is a complex piece to consider or review. My opinion of the book has been high all the way through, though I have had trouble nailing down why I enjoyed it as much as I did.

Engelmann’s writing is fluid, graceful and highly emotive. It is very hard not to get sucked into the story and the prose that conveys it, and the descriptions, locations, activities and conversation evoke a feeling of another time and place, totally removed from the reader’s world. I suspect that this is the fact that will make or break the book for a lot of people. To be honest, for me the way the book was written made the actual reading of the book hard work, requiring a lot more concentration than much historical fiction. Fortunately, the plot and setting are so intriguing that I found that even when I put the book down I was wondering what was coming next and had to pick it back up again.

The story revolves around a plot against the King of Sweden in the late 18th century, tied in with the ambitions of a gambler with a career in the city bureaucracy and an Octavo that is drawn for him – an Octavo is an unusual form of Cartomancy where eight cards are drawn on consecutive nights and represent the eight persons that are intimately tied into a great event, and which, if worked correctly, can control that event and bring it about. Beyond that I shall say no more – I am all for avoiding spoilers in a review.

One thing that really did enthral me in the book is the setting Sweden in the age of Revolution is about as alien an environment for me as I could find, and therefore every page brought me new learning and fascinating facts, painting a picture of a world I have never considered. Moreover, in the background, the world is undergoing great events following the revolutions in France and America. It really is a deep and fascinating situation for a writer and I am now amazed that so little has previously been written about it.

Two things that detracted a little for me and which I think were over-emphasised more than necessary for the story were the nature of the period’s folding ladies’ fans and their use and meaning, and the details of the card games played in the seedy gaming house. Both were a little too in-depth for me and slowed the story to a sluggish pace at times. Yet (and this is what confirms that this is all a matter of personal opinion) the detail of the cartomancy and the laying and interpretation of the octavo I found fascinating.

All in all, I would say that if you’re looking for fast paced, action packed historical fiction, this book will leave you wanting considerably. If, however, you’re looking for an immersive experience that tells a complex tale in a beautiful manner and brings to life a strange and intricate time and place, then you’ll enjoy the Stockholm Octavo.

End result: Not for everyone, but a fascinating look at an unusual setting.

Written by SJAT

September 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm