After a disastrous duel fought over an outstanding debt, young Asgeir finds himself pressed into service to Ulf the Old, the man who slayed Asgeir’s elder brother. Aging Norseman Ulf yearns to go raiding one last time, with Ireland as his destination, and Asgeir finds himself a press-ganged oarsman on the longship Sea-Bitch. A so-called Viking Gael, blending Norse and Gaelic Irish heritage, Asgeir chafes under Ulf’s command. However, morality compels him to delay his vengeance and bide his time; just as his brother was slain in a fair duel, Asgeir wishes to kill Ulf in an honest and “respectable” manner. But the Sea-Bitch’s voyage runs into trouble immediately after departure, as a routine stop for provisions in Laerdal enmeshes the crew in a tangled web of treachery and familial grievances. It turns out that Asgeir is not the only one with a hatred for Ulf, and he finds himself torn between his personal code of honor and his burning desire to see an enemy dead.
First book in a series of the same name, The Viking Gael Saga is set in western Norway, 870 AD. Central to the narrative is the Viking culture of honor. We’re shown a society of explosively escalating violence, where slights and injuries must be paid for—often immediately—in blood. Ryder adds nuance, however, by also demonstrating the importance of law and custom. It’s not merely enough to cut down an enemy, the killing must be done in a way in which the gods and one’s peers would deem above reproach.
Another key element of The Viking Gael Saga is the complex relationship between Asgeir and Ulf. Asgeir bears a grudge over the death of his brother, announcing openly his intent to avenge him. Ulf acknowledges this threat, but also trusts Asgeir will avoid underhanded tactics. He treats Asgeir as any other unproven member of the ship’s crew, neither coddling him nor treating him with especial harshness. Ulf often laments the lack of honor in his countrymen, and scrupulous Asgeir frequently finds himself agreeing with his enemy’s assessment. The Viking Gael Saga’s emphasis on honor and the charged interplay between Asgeir and Ulf turn what could have been a simplistic revenge tale into something much more intriguing.
The Viking Gael Saga hews closer to straight historical fiction than Ryder’s Celtic fantasy series, The Bronze Sword Cycles duology. While overt magic does not appear in the story, neither is the mystical ever very far away. The expectations of the grim Norse gods weigh heavily on the characters, and worries about hexes, omens, and the proper observation of rituals all play a primary role in guiding their actions. The ambiguous presentation of the supernatural and the visceral depiction of combat (no doubt enhanced by the author’s Historical European Martial Arts experience) make this a book that comfortably serves both the historical fiction audience and fans of gritty, grounded fantasy.
Ryder is both a resident of Norway and an archaeologist specializing in Viking history, and that expertise shines through in The Viking Gael Saga. He resists the temptation go overboard with lengthy background exposition and extraneous detail, however. Ryder’s knowledge is demonstrated by subtle touches in the book, showing how the characters act within their society, the tools they use, the laws they live under. Ryder’s presentation of the Viking era is quietly confident.
While The Viking Gael Saga tells a complete story, the book is somewhat harmed by its brevity: only 156 pages in the print edition. The cover shows a fleet of Viking longships on the open seas, but the solitary ship featured in the book doesn’t even make it out of Norway’s fjords. The events of this book would perhaps have better been served as an episode in a longer novel covering more of the Sea-Bitch’s journey. At this pace, Ireland seems very far away, indeed.
As the success of TV series and films Vikings: Valhalla, Vinland Saga, and The Northman show, Vikings continue to capture the popular imagination several centuries after their heyday. The Viking Gael Saga marks the beginning of a promising new addition to the modern viking canon.