Seith and Sword is the debut novel of Canadian author Chris Challice, and the first novel in the role-playing game setting Fate of the Norns. We follow the course of Vanadis and Gamli, Volsung thralls thrust into a panicked flight after their Neibelung captors are all killed under mysterious and arcane circumstances. As they travel around, they come into contact with a number of figures from Norse mythology and history, and come into their own powers as significant figures on this mythohistorical stage. While the novel suffers a little from some of the more common debut novel mistakes, those are forgiven since it is, in fact, a debut novel. Starting slowly, the story picks up and becomes increasingly engaging and interesting the further you read. An ambitious debut, and a great look into the myths, history and lore of a fascinating people that we nevertheless seem to unduly ignore in our Fantasy writing.
Revenge comes on the black wings of seith magic. Steinarr the Neibelung is killed, leaving the thralls Vanadis and Gamli as the sole survivors. When Steinarr’s nephew, Hardegon the Trusted, stumbles upon his town’s gruesome remains, when he discovers the thralls’ Volsung roots, it rekindles an ancient feud. Vanadis and Gamli flee Hardegon’s wrath, sailing on winds that take them from the shores of Pohjola to the Baltic sea. Their desperation mingles with Hardegon’s fury and they cut a swath of chaos across the East. Banished from Alands, loathed in Kalevala, and feared in Skane, they make a legion of foes. Their path crosses the likes of Queen Louhi, Bjorn Eriksson and Gorm the Old. All the while Vargeisa the Fire Wolf uses them to her own ends. This is a tale of vengeance, justice, honor and family.The struggle of Gods and Jotun expressed in the mortal realm, during the last golden days of Harald Fair Hair’s reign. The story of Vanadis the Cursed and Gamli the Serpent, a portent of darker things to come.
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I will tell you all that the author of this book, Christopher Challice, is somebody I’ve known for many years. He was a good friend of my older brother growing up, and their group of friends were largely responsible for my becoming a nerd in the first place. So if you’d like to read bias into my review, feel free. But I would point out that, being very aware of the bias I am likely to have, I’m also being very careful to try and be as balanced as I possibly can. With that out of the way, let’s get into the actual meat of the story.
I found this story started very slowly. I tend to gauge the overall success of a novel by how quickly I’ve become ‘engaged’ as in, the point at which I feel locked into the story. The point at which I identify with the characters, can tell them apart and care what happens to them, the plot has grabbed me and I start to think about what is going to happen instead of concentrating on tracking what has already happened. Seith and Sword took me about 100-125 pages. That’s not terrible in our world of mandatory trilogies, and 10 book series, and 1000 page books, but when the book itself is a slender 230, that means I made it halfway through before I was really engaged in the story.
My thinking for why this is, is that in an unfamiliar setting, all of the references to things going on away from and outside the protagonists is largely lost on me. That midpoint was the point at which our duo of Vanadis and Gamli stopped being the object of all the story and started being the subject. Watching people I’ve only just met be on the run from all these people with names I can only assume anybody more familiar with Norse myth and history would be nodding along to mentions of, left me feeling like I didn’t really know what was going on. As Vanadis and Gamli come into their own powers and abilities, and stop running and start being active participants in events, it started to pull me in more.
And don’t get me wrong, after that midpoint, I was sold. Like I said, I’ve known Chris for years, and he’s always been a tremendous storyteller, and Seith and Sword is no exception, once he gets rolling. I chalk the slow start up to the fact that as a role-playing game master, he likes to establish his setting and his plot thoroughly before the characters start running around and risk mucking it up, so when that translates over to prose, the first little big just drags a little because he’s trying to be thorough.
Once it picks up, this is a great adventure story with lots of juicy bits of mythology and supernatural creatures walking around doing cool stuff. One of the things I really enjoyed about the novel was the way that Challice writes as though this is a history, even while all of the supernatural and mythological elements are present. He portrays characters who reflect what the era would actually be like if the elements of mythology and religion were factual. The more powerful and important people are no stranger to the Gods and Jotun interfering in things, they have magic users around them and know what they are capable of. And then over here, the townsfolk are freaked out and very leery bordering on afraid of this stuff because they know they aren’t going to get Odin stepping in to make sure they come out alright. Not that they aren’t all hardy warrior folk who’ll deal with it anyway, but there really is well communicated the sense that some people have a LOT more familiarity and comfort with what the powers are up to than others.
What sells me the most on Seith and Sword is the characterization of the protagonists. There’s a temptation when you start with an ‘us against the world’ story to cling to it even if it doesn’t really work with the characters, and that doesn’t happen at all in this novel Vanadis and Gamli were thralls, but actually fairly well-treated as slaves go. While they both pretty quickly come to terms with the fact that they’re assumed to be responsible for the deaths of Steinarr’s people, given that finally having freedom is so valuable to them, they start to part in terms of motivation and goals almost immediately. Inter-party conflict is something a lot of fantasy novels shy away from. While the deep unquenchable bond of partnership you get from Aragorn and Legolas, or Drizzt and Wulfgar, lets you mostly ignore their internal motivations to focus on all the exciting action, watching the characters actually grow and develop is vastly superior. Gamli and Vanadis were united by being siblings, and by the crisis they are embroiled in, but they really aren’t that similar at all. Vanadis quickly becomes increasingly ambitious and dark, concerned with revenge, and gaining power. Gamli on the other hand, stays fairly grounded in his desire for peace and respect. If they’d had no conflict at all, it would have been at the huge expense of keeping their character consistent and logical.
Overall, I give the book passing marks both as a novel and a début. It does look like this could easily become a series and continue where this book left off, and I’d almost suggest, if the next volume or two remain as comparatively short as this one, that Challice might consider putting two or three together into one volume which would mitigate the feeling that it took half the book to really get invested. I’d rather read 100 pages of a 600 page book before it takes off than a 250 page one. But once it gets going, this is a great story about great and interesting characters with lots going on, embroiled in big events while keeping the focus tightly drawn in on them and what they’re up to. I definitely suggest this book to anybody into Norse history or mythology or both, and to anybody who likes their characters diverse and interesting.