Friday, April 07, 2006

Book Review - "Who's Afraid of Beowulf?" - Tom Holt

This is a fast paced amusing novel involving rampaging Vikings in the rock-strewn hills of Scotland. Hildy Fredricksen (or Fredriksdaughter as the Viking King insistently refers to her) is an American archaeologist who is summoned to dreary god-forsaken Rolfsness, Scotland to investigate the discovery of an ancient Viking interment mound, complete with a perfectly preserved enchanted long-ship and thirteen dead Vikings.

Except the Vikings are far from dead, and when Hildy opens the burial mound they awake from their centuries-long sleep bickering, annoyed at being woke up, hungry for a dinner of burnt seagull and ready for some bloody battle. Among the warriors are King Hrolf Ketilsson, called Earthstar, the shaman Kotkel, and Brynjolf, the shape-changer. They have been sleeping in the mound for twelve hundred years, waiting for the day when their foe, the sorcerer-king, will once again imperil the world. Then they will arise and wage war with him for the last time. They are puzzled however, to find that the disturbance of their mound was an accident by the local sewer diggers and not a deliberate call to battle.

They decide they might as well search for the sorcerer-king and see what he's gotten into during their absence. They discover that he has taken on the name Eric Swenson and can be found in his headquarters in a high-rise office building in the heart of London. They agree to go after him, thinking that he won't have any way of knowing they are coming for him. They are very mistaken. His state-of-the-art computers alert him to the fact that King Hrolf and his companions are on the move.

The Vikings' most powerful weapon is a dragon-brooch that was buried with them, stolen by Hildy from the site and in a fit of remorse returned. When powered by the two sprites, Prexz and Zxerp (sentient puddles of pure power that snack on electricity), the brooch makes the owner invincible. The sorcerer-king and his werewolf side-kick Thorgeir Storm-Shepherd want this trinket, and they want to destroy the Viking king once and for all and take over all of humankind. The Kings Heroes, an irritable bunch of witless warriors, provide some fabulous moments of humor but, in my estimation, the spirits provide the most enjoyable moments in the story.

The greater part of the story is taken up with the efforts of the Vikings and the sorcerer-king attempting to locate each other and employ battle. A subplot involves Danny Bennett, who works for the BBC and who is eager to film an award-winning documentary about the mysterious Viking mound and the American archaeologist who has mysteriously disappeared. There are many encounters with the police, a great deal of riding around in vans and buses, some shape changing, and a lot of seagull snacking. Magic and technology are contrasted amusingly and the Vikings make many comparisons between their world and the twentieth century.

The finale is somewhat anti-climactic and hardly seems worth all the energy it took the bands of Scottish warrior to get there, but this is a forgotten point since you really don't read this book to see how it ends, you read it to try and figure out the rules of the game Goblin's Teeth, which seems to be a fabulously complex game with the fundamentals of Chess, Monopoly, Bridge, Chutes and Ladders, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots and a dozen other games. I don't believe that even the sprites playing it know all the rules.

This is an amusing, witty, and humorous story and is in refreshing contrast to the dark, urban fantasies that are so popular today. The humor is frequent and the characters outstanding and fleshed out extremely well, with the noble and long-suffering King, the constantly bickering warriors, the preoccupied wizard (who spends a majority of his time trying to create a magical ever-replenishing can of beer), two voltage-sucking spirits, and of course, the Sorcerer-King himself.

Tom Holt has once again taken the chronicles of the past and turned them over, resulting in a superbly marvelous book. I recommend you beg, borrow, steal, scrounge, buy, rent or otherwise acquire. You certainly won't regret it. A solid 5 out of 5 stars.
  • Tom Holt

  • * The Alternative One

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