Sharpen your axes and raise your horns people! This week’s review is for Northern Wrath, the first part of the Hanged God trilogy, by Thilde Kold Holdt. Vikings, gods and monsters meet in this epic tale of vengeance and bloodshed. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the advance reader copy of the book which I received from the publisher, Solaris.
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One thing which will quickly become abundantly clear while reading this book is that it certainly lives up to its name; there’s more wrath than you can shake a sword at. Battles are bloody from the outset, with throats slashed, limbs hacked off, intestines spooling out of people and more. Despite the sheer amount of carnage and the graphic descriptions of it though, it never feels like the gore and violence is sensationalised. Holdt puts you right at the heart of a vicious melee, where desperate warriors struggle with one another to gain any advantage they can for their side and fight tooth and nail to survive. The combat of Northern Wrath is certainly never dull. As well as being exciting and action-packed though, it also feels extremely authentic. The tactics employed by the Vikings, with berserkers, shield walls and cunning tricks will be familiar to anyone who has enjoyed the TV series Vikings, and will no doubt be educational and interesting for those who haven’t. We’re also “treated” to a description of the aftermath of a battle at one point, which is far from the sanitised battlefields we so often see on film – this is a charnel scene, in which maggots writhe on charred corpses and crows rip at blackened flesh. Again, it’s not gore for the sake of gore; it’s gore for the sake of authenticity.
Of course, it’s not just 650 pages of bloodshed. Thanks to the multiple viewpoints, we get quite the tour of some of the nine worlds, often from the perspective of Buntrugg, a giant. Under the employ of Surt as a kind of magical bagman, Buntrugg engages in a number of seemingly impossible tasks, whether it be extracting information from mysterious entities or procuring elixirs with magical properties. Thanks to Holdt’s uncluttered prose, there is an almost whimsical charm to many of Buntrugg’s chapters that makes them feel as if they could slot straight into a modern retelling of myths (Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, for example). It’s an excellent use of the multiple viewpoints, as it varies the pace and tone, as well as giving what feels almost like behind-the-scenes insight into what the inhabitants of the other realms are up to. Elsewhere, Ragnar’s chapters, which follow him as he’s trapped between worlds, provide an eyewitness account of existing myths, tying the invented in with the historic neatly. At times, some references might be missed if you’re unfamiliar with the wider mythology – a glossary might be handy here – but much of it can be inferred from context (or a quick google).
Other characters are much more of this world, but no less interesting. Einer, the son of the Chief of Ash-Hill, is classic hero material – honourable yet flawed, hiding his berserk rage from everyone but those closest to him. One of those in the loop on this secret is Hilda, who yearns to be a shieldmaiden and accompany Einer and the other warriors on raids. To reveal too much of her story would really be straying into spoiler territory, but in the case of both characters, you really feel them becoming legendary. There is the destiny that they seek and the destiny that is thrust upon them, and the way both of them embrace this when it comes in key moments allows you to actually see them grow as characters, as well as developing their relationship with each other. It all feels very organic and natural, despite the divine or supernatural interventions which often prompt it. Meanwhile, Einer’s mother Siv – along with the young girl Tyra who she’s sworn to protect – acts as a link between worlds, her investigation into the weakening bond between men and gods setting the stakes out for us to see and providing vital context. She’s also an adept manipulator, equally capable of manoeuvring herself out of trouble with her words as she is with a blade.
With a pacey plot and epic scope, Northern Wrath is hugely entertaining. Its characters live, breathe, sweat and bleed (oh, how they bleed), and I can’t wait to see what the fates have in store for them next. Northern Wrath is published by Solaris, and is available through this affiliate link.