Review by Theodore Brun.
There is a moment, not far into the pages of Angus Donald’s exciting new novel The Last Berserker, when the protagonist wonders out loud what he is doing there, “among this vicious gang of blood-drunk lunatics.”
It made me laugh because I was feeling exactly the same way at that point.
This is not a book for the faint-hearted. From the first page, one must gird up one’s loins for the world we have entered.
This is late 8th century Northern Europe, a time of untold amounts of blood-letting and conflict; between the Franks on the one hand, led by the Emperor Charlemagne and fired by the new faith of Christianity, and the Saxons (ably assisted by Danes and assorted other northern tribes) on the other, holding out against them in defence of the “old ways of the North”.
Into this world so fraught with violence and deception, is thrown a comparative ingenue, Bjarki Bloodhand, a young man raised on a miserable sliver of land somewhere in the Danish archipelago. “Toad ugly” in looks, simple in brains, but sweet in nature, it’s fair to say Bjarki is not your conventional hero. However, his naivety is so endearing that for all the bloody mayhem that he endures and wreaks himself, you cannot but come to love him dearly.
And that poor kid has to endure a good deal. He has a gift (or curse, depending on your viewpoint). Violence lurks in him, a savagery beyond his control, which puts him in hot water as soon as we meet him. However, when a mysterious one-eyed wanderer called Valtyr saves him from the noose, Bjarki embarks on an astonishing journey of transformation, from simpleton blacksmith’s boy to the commander of an elite force defending the North from an invading Frankish army. During his travails he seeks to become a Rekkr – a berserker – a warrior with the rare ability of invoking the “gandr” spirit of a fierce beast (a bear in his case) during combat which makes him all but invincible. The Rekkar are as feared by the Franks as they are respected by the Saxons and Danes. But they are a dying breed, as the title of the novel suggests.
Fortunately, accompanying him nearly every step of the way, is Tor Hildarsdottir – a skilled shield-maiden herself, and daughter of a legendary Rekkr. She wants nothing more than to honour her father’s memory by becoming a Rekkr as well (her preferred gandr being the wolf). Acerbic, irreverent, and often very, very funny, she is the perfect foil to the lumbering innocence of Bjarki. She rarely addresses him as anything but “oaf” but he never seems to mind. For me, their friendship was the beating heart of the book and carries the narrative through some pretty harrowing (and thrilling) situations. Their growing appreciation of each other’s skills creates an unlikely friendship apparently untroubled by romance, but nevertheless infused with great affection and respect. There are just damn good company and I would happily follow this pair anywhere they chose to go.
And they do roam extremely far and wide. From the low-lying Danish Isles, through dark Germanic forests to the majestic architecture of Charlemagne’s imperial city of Aachen, thence to the final climax at the Dane-Work, the earthen rampart built in defence of Jutland.
All this is rendered with the vivid brush-strokes of Donald’s wonderful prose. Indeed he delivers a masterclass in world-building throughout the novel. His attention to the physical detail of both the pagan North and the more civilized cities of the Frankish Empire is remarkable. But particularly impressive is his re-imagining of the thought-world of the pagan warriors, especially with regard to the making of a Rekkr.
With The Last Berserker, Donald has given us the first cut of some serious Dark Age beef. By turns heart-racing, intriguing, and touching – I can’t wait for more.
Theodore Brun studied Dark Age archaeology at the University of Cambridge before a career in law. In 2010 he cycled 11,000 miles from Hong Kong to Norfolk. He is the author of the epic Viking series, The Wanderer Chronicles. His latest novel, The Burning Sea, is set during the siege of Constantinople in 717/718AD.