I was lucky enough to win an ARC of this one via Twitter, and was so looking forward to reading it. It looks and smells exactly like my cup of tea. Maybe that was a bad thing, because it always seems that when I'm absolutely dying to get my paws on something there's a somehow inevitable sense of disappointment when I actually dig in.
Swords of Good Men is one of the most disjointed, interrupted novels I've ever read. Within each chapter the action jumps from place to place several times, and in some cases each of these sections is just a paragraph long. I actually really enjoyed the action and the characters that were described in each location, but found it hugely frustrating to have to keep switching between them so fast. I found myself losing track of names and threads in the process. You could, of course, argue that this is simply because I'm a bear of very little brain, but it just isn't a style that suits me well at all. Imagine trying to watching three really good films at once, channel hopping between them, that's what the majority of this novel felt like to me. The content is fantastic, but the style nearly killed me. Are attention spans really so short now? Or is this some new literary trait that I'm just completely unaware of? If this hadn't been a review copy, I would have been unlikely to have finished it, and that would have been a real shame because the absolute best of this one comes right at the end.
Style aside, Kristjansson's characterisation is outstanding. Many times through this one I was reminded of Gemmell, who will always be the master in my eyes when it comes to writing fantasy characters you can genuinely care about. If you like Gemmell, I suspect you'll also like Kristjansson. Sigurd is the epitome of a strong leader, and Valgard the healer is completely intriguing. It takes a good 160 pages until you find out just what he's all about. Thora is unforgettable and a great deal of fun. I see her in my head as a sort of female Brian Blessed with tourettes;
"Put some cock into it, you lazy mongrel shit-witted bastard whoresons!"
Audun is absolutely classic, and Harald is beautifully evil, if perhaps a little predictable.
There's a nice mix of town politics with wider issues, and Kristjansson connects the two well. My favourite aspect of the novel was the conflict between the Old Gods and The White Christ, that's an area that always fascinates me, and I'd recommend the novel purely on that point alone. I love to see how different authors deal with the same themes, and this is definitely one of the better explorations of the topic I've seen. As ever it's hard to do this without spoilers, but there's an image of King Olav in my head, up on the roof, desecrating some religious statues in a way that I won't forget anytime soon.
One aspect that I wasn't at all sold on was Ulfer's 'romance'. I didn't find his sudden attraction and subsequent character change convincing, and am curious to see what others make of it. It may just be that I have a heart of stone!
The raid towards the end of the novel is where everything starts to come together, and this jumped from a two to a four star read in the space of about fifty pages for me. The battle scenes are beautifully written, and the bag of tricks employed by the defenders is no end of fun. The last section of the novel attains a pace and consistency that I found missing previously, and it completely redeemed itself in my eyes. Everything is beautifully set up for the next book, which I will now be eagerly awaiting.
Kristjansson does an awful lot right in Swords of Good Men. He's not scared of a body count, and he's not afraid of a good old fashioned cliffhanger. His characterisation and world-building are hard to fault, and the clash of Gods within the novel is captivating. For me, the structure was the most questionable and damaging element. I would have much preferred to stay for longer spells with certain characters rather than the incessant jumping around that pervades the novel. But, that's just personal preference. Either way I was won over in the end.