Vinland Saga (Book 1&2)

Few words stir the imagination the way "Viking" does. Say it, and the mind calls forth images of burly blond men in furs and horned helmets plundering across distant lands in their dragon-headed ships. Perhaps it may make one recall the Norse gods of old and the cataclysm of Ragnarok, although depending on your age the appearance of said gods may or may not be influenced by the Marvel cinematic universe. Some might even think of a bunch of Minnesotan football players clad in purple and gold. "Viking" is a word that speaks to a very specific time and place in history, and it's not a time and place one expects to see portrayed in a manga.

Vinland Saga is a unique series is many ways. Historical dramas are something of a rarity in modern-day manga, and that is doubly true for historical dramas set outside of Japan. The fact that it's the work of Makoto Yukimura, the creator of Planetes, also lends it a certain pedigree to the handful of people who actually read or watched that series. This series also had someone of a reputation for years for being impossible to licence due to its subject matter, its level of violence, and the fact that seinen series like this have often been a tough sell to an audience that is mostly composed of teenagers. Thus, the fact that the English-speaking world can finally enjoy this series in big, beautiful hardbound omnibuses is truly marvelous.

So what is Vinland Saga? Surprisingly, it so far involves little to no mention of the actual Vinland,
a.k.a. the Labrador coast of Canada. It is instead the story of two men. The first of these is Thorfinn, and it would be the understatement of the year to call him a very angry young man. He is the son of Thors, whose gentle, thoughtful manner gives little hint to his past as a mercenary renowned for his strength, size, and ferocity in battle. Young Thorfinn knew nothing of this, though. Like many little boys, he loved and idolized his father and longed to grow up and be a great warrior like him. Sadly for Thors, he cannot escape his past forever, and when an unscrupulous fighter takes his life Thorfinn is traumatized. The story skips ahead many years after this point, and this Thorfinn is a very different boy. His eyes, his posture, his speech, all of it radiates the pain and barely suppressed anger inside him. Even his own inner monologue is dominated by thoughts of his father and of the past. Thorfinn's only release for that rage is in battle, where he displays speed and power far beyond his years. Thorfinn is no berseker, though. He fights for one purpose alone: revenge. Every victory on the field means another chance to challenge his father's killer and thus satisfy his bloodlust and his sense of honor.

The second man is Askeladd, the leader of Thorfinn's mercenary group and the man who slayed Thors all those years ago. While Askeladd is a brilliant fighter in his own right, it is his intelligence and cunning that distinguishes him from the rest. Being unscrupulous, he's not above doing something like exploiting the son of a dead man to help him fight his battles. He even humors Thorfinn's desire for revenge, no doubt helped by the fact that Askeladd has beat Thorfinn every single time. To him, Thorfinn's thirst for revenge is nothing but a joke, the empty threat of a child. In many ways, Askeladd is a tough character to pin down because he so expertly straddles the line between villain and anti-hero. He's the sort who will happily exploit others to achieve his own goals, but he does it with such panache and skill that it's hard to resent him for it. He's got a sly and snarky sense of humor and wields it often, making him all the more likeable. At least, that's the image he likes to project to others. Askeladd is in reality a very guarded person who confides to as few people as possible, and even then he only discloses what he wants others to know. For all his surface charm, it's often hard to tell when - or if - he is telling the truth about himself and his own goals.

Much of the first omnibus is spent establishing who Thorfinn was, showing both his past and his present.  The plot is set into motion in the second omnibus, when Askeladd's men set off to England to aid the Danes in their battles with the Saxon kingdoms of the south.  They end up playing escorts to the son of the Danish king, Canute. Some of you may vaguely recall a story about a King Canute trying to command the tides to obey his commands. That version of Canute is many years into the future, though. At this time, Canute is a delicate little bishonen who is so shy and stammering that he almost entirely communicates through his advisor/bodyguard. Needless to say, he doesn't inspire much confidence in his protectors. Still, a job is a job, and their job is to get Canute back into the Danelaw by sneaking through the Welsh countryside and avoiding the Saxon forces led by a powerful mad Viking deserter.

Near the end of the equivalent of each volume, we get peeks into the world outside of Thorfinn and company. We spend a fair bit of time with Thorfinn's older sister Ylva, who might be my favorite character in the whole series. There's just something about her particular blend of practicality, materialism, and a certain manic energy that just appeals to me.  Still, a lot of this comes from the fact that she is simply the only person left in her family to do all the work. Her mother is sickly, and both her father and brother are presumed dead, and any time spent idle is time she could possibly end up lingering on the tragedy of it all.  There's also an interesting little chapter about a Christian Saxon girl whose own little moral struggle ends up sparing her from slaughter at the hand of Askeladd's men, only to face an uncertain future. These stories may be tangential, but it does wonder for fleshing out some of the secondary cast, as well as the world in which everyone lives. It also helps the books from being a total sausagefest.

Yukimura's art is just as solid as his character writing, even the characters are a little more cartoony in their looks than those in Planetes. He also clearly did a lot of research for this series, because he gets so many details right. The costumes, the weaponry, the boats, all of them are historically correct and beautifully rendered. He includes maps as the end of each volume, to show the nations of Europe at the time of the story, or to trace Askeladd's march across the English countryside.  He even accounts for the obvious language barriers, as characters comment on not being able to understand one another, or having Danes speak pidgin English at Saxons. It's telling that the biggest historical nitpick I have is that the Franks from the beginning of the first omnibus are shown speaking modern French.

Yukimura is also not shy about the violence. People get stabbed, fingers get chopped off, and crows pluck eyeballs from dead men. He doesn't linger on these sights for the sake of shock value, but neither does he want the reader to forget how deadly the circumstances are. There's also a wonderful sense of  scale in the world of Vinland Saga. The scenery spreads out in sprawling panoramas, from the frosty plains of Iceland to the rocky hills of Wales. The battlefields are vast, full of men hacking and slashing way at one another. There is just so much effort and so much research put into every page, and it's all just so glorious to look at.

Vinland Saga might be short on the Vinland so far but it is shaping up to be a hell of a saga, one that was well worth the wait. Both the art and the characters are beautifully fleshed out, and it's presented in a manner that few manga get and even fewer deserve, and I look forward to more. This series deserves no less than a perfect rating.


Popular Posts