Tomes of the Dead: Viking Dead by Toby Venables. Originally published by Abaddon Books, April 2011. Approx. 345 pages.
Continuing along with "period zombie novels" in Abaddon's Tomes of the Dead series, we move on to a historical figure that I am guessing has not gotten a lot of zombie treatment yet: the viking raider. Toby Venables aims to touch on this very promising subject matter in his debut novel, the matter-of-factly named Viking Dead. Now, while I was stoked at the premise, you can't help but be wary of freshman novels. However, existing online reviews were promising for this title, so I dove in. Upon finishing it, I can say that there is some really good stuff here, some run of the mill things, and a major "WTF" turn that will either be embraced or hated by the reader. Let's read on...
Taking place circa 976 AD, Viking Dead focuses on Bjolf, captain of the longship Hrafn, and leader of a diverse group of veteran viking raiders. We meet them as they launch a raid on a small village, where things do not go as planned. Picking up a young villager in the process (who later becomes a full-fledged member), they then run into a rival (and much larger) raiding party. Escaping catastrophe by the seat of their pants, they find themselves embroiled in a much greater horror.
Strange occurrences begin manifesting themselves soon into the Hrafn's egress. Following the ominous warnings of a terrified villager (the new "recruit", Atli's, father), evidence appears that the dead may indeed walk the earth again. At first, the incidents are small, although still jarring. The crew tries their best to not believe it, but mounting evidence makes that impossible. Soon, desperate for supplies, they find themselves approaching a mysterious land. A land shrouded in mist and mystery, which will, of course, prove to be the epicenter of the bizarre, twisted resurrections.
Within this land is a small fortress, where a ragtag clutch of villagers cower under the continual harassment of a villain named Skalla, a dreaded character who somehow holds sway over an army of corpses, a man who is the most likely key to the pressing questions of "how" and "why". But of course, there is always more beneath the surface. So much more. Let's look at all the parts of Viking Dead and see how they stack up together.
Characters: Hmmmm, gotta be honest here. Pretty much stock characters throughout. I don't know if I should chalk that up to rookie writing or Venables playing it safe. The characters are picked from templates and then written competently, even if predictable. Although written in a third person POV, the focus shifts primarily between Atli (the village boy turned viking recruit) and Bjolf. Atli was a bit of a pleasant surprise; it is very easy for books, movies, etc. to get ruined by introducing a child character that isn't presented well. Venables doesn't try too hard to make him into a prodigy, or make him likable. His is a fairly accurate account, if you take the time to step back and put yourself in his young boots. Unfortunately, Bjolf is a bit more cookie-cutter. He is just right in every facet, and of course, he has a heart of gold. I am not saying that all vikings were ruthless miscreants, but I'm assuming that Bjolf's crew has taken part in some rapings and child throat slittings during their years at sea. So much attention is paid to historical detail throughout (more on that later), that it seems somewhat cheap to forcefully impart 20th/21st century morality sets on these characters just to make them more palatable to a modern audience. But I guess we must do what we must do. Secondary and ancillary characters are punched out of cardboard as well. For example, we have Gunnar, Bjolf's longtime friend and second-in-command. Of course he is the bigger one, a bit socially awkward, and the completely loyal comic relief. Other crew members get fantastic introductions, but then, only a handful remain memorable, leaving the rest idling in the background as zombie fodder. There are friendly ones, and gruff ones, ones that are built around a single skill and no more, and of course, all are reliable at just the right time. These are tried and true tropes, so, while they are easily identifiable, they also make for easy reading. There is a late interlude where we get to saunter around a bit in the mind of our bad guy, Skalla, and in that time we have the set up for a sympathetic baddie (the best kind!), but, alas, not much is done with it.
Overall writing style/Knowledge of material: Venables has a very promising writing style, although there are some rookie missteps abound (we just finished the drubbing based on the characters). One of the main problems is "action for the sake of action during journey scenes". Yes, I get it. Those long walking scenes are pretty tiresome, so I can definitely understand the temptation to punch them up with some excitement, but some of the scenes are so arbitrary that they leave little chance to feel engaged.
However, there is an undeniably robust writing style at play here. Venables paces this novel extremely well. I have read some other reviews complaining that it is too long before the zombies arrive (well, in any considerable number). Yes, that portion of the book doesn't kick in until nearly halfway in, but you don't feel it as such. The story never bogs. The scenes of introduction and bonding are lively and entertaining. The world building is intense, detailed, and immersive. And it is peppered with great action scenes throughout.
One thing I really enjoyed is Venables' grasp of viking history. A hack writer attempting to compose such a period piece might have limited themselves to broad terms like "use the word longship, everyone is blond with beards and axes, etc.". Not so here. Viking Dead is saturated with terms and traditions that give you an intimately accurate experience of what traveling on one of these ships might have been like. The very real urgency of resource gathering, making the most of limited space, when to raid, and when to prepare to barter. The crew, as well, reflects a diversity that was more likely evident at the time than the standard "bearded blond" viking template we are familiar with. The Hrafn has warriors that are Scandinavian, English, Irish, and even Arabian in origin. There is mention of the mixed religions observed. Some revere the old Norse gods, some the "White Christ", some a mixture of both, some none. Again, though, as most of the playersdon't get a lot of characterization, these nice touches aren't as fully realized as they should have been.
Battle Scenes: Excellent. Venables writes robust, rousing action pieces that are complete with berserk rages and flying gobbets. There is plenty of action abound; be it viking vs. viking or viking vs. zombie. The characters use a nice array of weaponry, and it is interesting to see the utilized based on their characteristics (i.e.: there are various types of axes used, all with different blades, and therefore different techniques).
Zombies: Here we are at the most important ingredient in this viking horror stew. I must say that Venables writes some pretty amazing zombies. This is the billed main event, and it delivers. Drawing upon creatures from historical viking lore known as draugr, the author makes them into a truly palpable menace. These are dread figures of the shambling sort, although they can put on little bursts of speed. They are a bit stronger than their musculature might imply, and they can be killed by the traditional head shot. Two things, however, elevate the portrayal of them here. First is Venables' descriptive prose. He does not stop with the physical descriptions of the shamblers, he also gives you a first hand feeling of what it is like to do battle with one. The vile, black ichor that weeps from their wounds, The smells from beyond the grave. Impotent body blows that feel as little more than "stabbing into jelly".He takes it from painting a picture to delivering an experience, and the book benefits greatly from it.
Second, Venables employs a trick not often seen in zombie media, he makes the virus affect all creatures that taste the zombie blood. So, in a few choice encounters, the crew must face off against zombified critters. Nice.
Fear Factor: Fairly high here. There are some real claustrophobic moments, especially aboard the ship as the crew heads to their fate. The moments where our characters first discover evidences of the undead horrors resonate with the reader.
The Trouble With Quibbles: I've already mentioned the lack of unique characters and characterization, so for the time being I'll stop flogging that dead horse.
Ok, maybe just a few more strokes, you magnificent equine bastard!
There are a few more issues regarding some loose ends in the story, so as a warning, this bullet point list contains some SPOILERS:
- First, what exactly are the ramifications of the scratch Atli receives from the underwater zombie? Is he impervious to the contamination? Does he possess an immunity that a cure can be extracted from? Or did the importance of it just wear off?
- Second, what was the point of the "experimentations"? We know "the masters" were looking for a cure (or said they were), so why exactly were they stitching together zombie abominations? The scenes with these creatures were creepy, but what was the point?
- What exactly was the point of the zombie "on and off" switches (the liquid and powder that Skalla carried)? No, I know the literal function of them. But the reasoning behind why they were introduced is never given to us.
Finally, we get to the big issue: the old twist ending (although this one was pretty easy to guess about twenty pages before it happens). I am guessing this turn will really not sit well with some readers, and I'll give Venables credit, it takes a lot of balls to steer your novel in a completely different direction after following the same road for a little over 300 pages. And, in all honesty, if you can swallow viking zombies in your book, well, you should be able to take anything. All I'm saying is, you might hate the ending. I didn't mind the twist.
"And I loved it!"
To the author's credit, it left the window open for sequel(s) featuring the remaining characters, in a new setting, which, given how enjoyable the overall quality of this book was, would not be a bad thing.
Here's what it is:
It's all in the title. Vikings vs. the viking dead. And it's done fairly well too. You get the bonus of historical authenticity and some of the better zombies I've seen in print. Plus, zombie ants. Don't laugh. Imagine your last moments being spent getting stripped to the bones by millions of crazed zombie ants.
I like it, but I don't love it. The color scheme is great, as is the arrangement of the zombies. I love the physicality of the central berserker (ties in to actual creature in the book). The only problem is that he is "too neat". It looks like someone drew a nice, fit viking and then tried to "deadify" him in Photoshop. For the two zombies on the wings, the one on the right is done very well, while the one on the left simply looks like he stepped on a Lego. A fate worse than death.
Cover Final Score: