By A. D. Cahill
Meikle, William. Berserker. Weymouth (Dorset): GhostWriter Publications, 2009.
There’s something about each season that calls me to a certain type of fantasy. Maybe it’s the sub-zero weather, the darkness, or that ineffable feeling of loss that comes with the leafless, skeletal trees, but the winter, bleak winter, belongs to Elric, Fafhrd and Conan. When the darkness comes, and icy wind hits you in the face like an axe, well that’s the time for, as Led Zepplin put it in the Immigrant Song, “whispered tales of gore”.
And what better fare for our winter sojourn than a Viking story red-hot from the forge? William Meikle delivers his story, Berserker, still glowing from the frenetic fires of his imagination. Is Berserker perfect? No. Is it perfect for what it sets out to do? Yes. Hell, yes.
Berserker starts like a military horror with Vikings substituting for a platoon patrol. A band of Viking traders/raiders approaches a deserted village that shows signs of recent occupation. In that village, they find a horrifying creature, an Alma, lurking by a dung heap. Some of the Vikings think the shaggy, scythe-clawed monster is a troll, others aren’t sure, but they attack the beast. (After all, they are Vikings.) In the ensuing slaughter, they find that the creature was, uh-oh, pregnant and, Odin protect us, not alone.
Things go FUBAR faster than a tanker truck jackknifing across a four-lane highway. When the Alma besiege the Vikings in their makeshift fort, splattered brains practically fly from the page and slop on your chest. But the Alma aren’t the only problem. Meikle knows that at the heart of a good siege-type story (zombie tales included), the real enemy is the enemy within.
The Vikings themselves are a fractious and fractured group. When their leader dies, his incompetent son Kai, whose cowardice is tempered only by his greed, contends with Tor, a neophyte Viking on his first raid. Tor holds honour, courage and friendship as his highest ideals. The title character is Skald, Tor’s life-long companion, a crippled seer and, as it turns out during his first battle, a berserker. Tor and Kai vie for control as the world around them turns into one gigantic blood-slushie.
Skald, in the meantime, is learning about the Alma and their chthonic deity from the inhabitants of the village, whom the Vikings found hiding in a nearby cave. The Vikings, it turns out, are fated to face this deity.
Without giving away too much of the plot, let’s just say that Meikle knows his Norse myth and, more importantly, knows how to change it in interesting ways. If you’ve read Snorri’s Edda, you’ll certainly be rewarded, but you won’t know exactly what to expect.
Berserker is not a book about character; at least, it’s not what you might call character-driven. We never learn why Kai is such a grade-A ass. His father laments only that Tor should have been his son, not Kai. Skald keeps a dark secret from Tor which he never reveals, thus preventing any real exploration or test of their friendship. We must accept that Tor is just a great Viking and Skald is his loyal friend.
The writing, too, never reaches the poetic power of Howard’s prose and, at times, characters’ emotions are revealed by repetitive action. People spit a lot to show contempt.
There aren’t many plot twists either. The story isn’t entirely linear, but the tale’s power is in the immediate action, the progression of events rather than set-ups and surprises. But remember, it’s not a David Mamet play, and Meikle can never be accused of being easy on his characters.
So why then am I going to recommend this book if it doesn’t have an intricate plot or deep characters (Skald excepted)?
Here’s the thing. The narrative crashes over you like a tidal wave, punches you like a mailed fist and carries you along with joyful, gory abandon. This book is meant to be consumed with gusto, not laboured over the way a baboon picks nits from its fur. If Meikle had spent precious pages on Kai’s psychology, or deepening Skald and Tor’s relationship, this book would have stalled, a ship trapped in ice. This book is an ice-breaker. Berserker isn’t about in-depth character studies, poetic descriptions, or lovingly crafted iambic-strewn prose – don’t misunderstand me here; Meikle’s prose is more than up to the task. It’s about frickin’ Vikings, monsters, blood and honour, dying by your friend’s side, for your friend. It’s about sticking a firebrand in Winter’s damned face. It’s about taking the reader on one hell of a Viking raid, and I, for one, am glad I climbed aboard.
More information about Berserker and William Meikle’s other books, stories and screenplays can be found here.