Robert Low’s The Whale Road takes us back to over a thousand years ago to experience life as a Viking raider through the voice of young Orm Rurikson. Orm becomes a member of the Oathsworn, the crew of a Viking raiding ship. The Oathsworn derive their name from an oath to Odin that binds them together in brotherhood. They are hired as relic-hunters. Through the many twists and turns of the plot, they eventually end up seeking the buried treasure of Attila the Hun.
Low firmly thrusts the reader in a man’s world. With one notable exception, women are treated as incidentals, there for the taking. The novel is replete with crashing shields, slashing swords, clanging metal, whizzing arrows, dismembered body parts, obscenities, foul smells, graphic descriptions of bodily functions, breast-thumping machismo, swinging axes, gushing blood, and fierce hand-to-hand combat.
The writing is fast-paced and vigorous—sometimes a little too fast because it was difficult at times to know what was happening and who was fighting whom. The confusion is compounded by the plethora of Nordic characters, some of whom are mentioned in a few lines or a few pages only to disappear entirely from the novel. The first few chapters are especially bewildering with their convoluted story line and flashbacks. The writing is a little choppy, but one eventually gets caught up in the rhythm of the book and gallops along with the events.
References to Norse mythology and the conflict with the “White Christ” abound. And punctuated throughout the blood and gore are moments of surprising humor. The Oathsworn tease each other mercilessly, engaging in friendly put-downs and snappy barbs that are funny.
As the narrator of events, Orm Rurikson is unflinchingly honest. He describes the battlefield as a grim and bloody killing fest, one that bears no relationship to the heroic battle descriptions in the sagas of Norse culture. Brotherhood oaths and shield walls notwithstanding, Orm recognizes survival on the battlefield may have as much to do with luck as skill.
With its vivid, gritty, and visceral descriptions, this is not a novel for the faint-hearted or for those seeking novels about polite society. But if you’re looking for an action-packed, entertaining story, a compelling page-turner that grips you into the grisly warp and weft of a Viking raider’s life, then this is a book for you.