Saturday, December 26, 2020

Book Review: Starkadder

Book Review: 'Starkadder' by Bernard King

4 / 5 Stars

‘Starkadder’ (244 pp.) was published by the New English Library in April, 1986. The cover artist is uncredited.

Bernard King (b. 1946) is a UK writer who published a number of well-received horror / fantasy novels during the 80s. None of these novels were published in the US, so finding them can be a bit complicated. 

A Google search for information about his writing was not overly informative, but King apparently also published nonfiction works on Scandinavian history, as well as ‘The Way of the Runes’, a 2002 guide to using rune magic for improving life and health.

[note: I suggest NOT reading the Kirkus Reviews entry for 'Starkadder', as it contains spoilers.]

This is the first volume in the so-called ‘Starkadder’ trilogy, the other volumes being ‘Vargr-Moon’ (1986) and ‘Death-Blinder’ (1988).

The novel builds on King’s knowledge and familiarity with Scandinavian myths and legends; it is based on Starkad, a hero from Norse mythology and the subject of a number of Skaldic poems. King also works in aspects of the 13th century Ynglinga Saga, which deals with the Norse gods and their involvement in human affairs. 

‘Starkadder’ is set in medieval Sweden, under the mythological Ynglinga dynasty. The dynasty’s current monarch, King Oli, is a psychopath, albeit one whose declining health does not prevent him from ruthlessly torturing to death any member of his court suspected of conspiring to overthrow the throne. 

Starkadder, one of Oli’s soldiers, is a disruptive force in the fate of both gods and men. Cursed by Thor to not only live three hundred years, but to commit an act of deepest treachery in each century, Starkadder’s elderly appearance belies the fact that he is invincible in combat, and the most feared killer in all of the North. As the novel opens, a world-weary Starkadder longs for death, which will only be awarded to him when he commits his final act of treachery. 

King Oli’s greatest fear is that Starkadder’s treachery will involve removing Oli from the throne. To this end, Oli maneuvers to have Starkadder dispatched by a mercenary named Angantyr, who wields a magical dwarven blade called Tyrfing.
Little does Oli know that the confrontation between Starkadder and Angantyr will set into motion events that will determine the ultimate fate of the Norse peoples, in an era in which the missionaries from the South are jeopardizing the existence of the Old Gods by spreading the doctrine of the White Christ. Will the machinations of mortal men, as well as the machinations of Odin, the Norns, and the malevolent Dvalin, King of the Dwarves, bring about the act of treachery that will set Starkadder free from his curse ? 

I found ‘Starkadder’ to be a solid four-star fantasy novel, one with a strong underpinning in historical reality. Author King’s descriptive passages are very successful in providing the reader with a sense of the landscapes and societies of medieval Scandinavia, and the influence held by the Norse pantheon upon the populace. The interaction of the supernatural with the natural is worked into the narrative in an understated, but effective manner and the novel’s denouement stays true to the plot rather than employing contrivance.

The verdict ? If you like your medieval fantasy novels to be suffused with a note of gritty reality, then ‘Starkadder’ will satisfy. While paperback and hardbound copies of the book can be rather pricey, they are worth acquiring, as - presumably - are the other two volumes in the series.

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