What's this book? It's The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson, written in the 1940s about life in the 10th century. I've had it on my radar for a while and then Eva reviewed it at the end of 2011 and reminded me about it and confirmed its awesomeness. And then recently Amazon had it on Kindle Daily Deal, so I snatched it up (figuratively, not literally, of course, as it is an e-book) and then I started reading it in India and on my flight back from India.
While I enjoy reading, and often read on planes, I do think that a book needs to be fast-paced for me to enjoy reading it on a plane. I am not sure why this is so - perhaps because if I am hurtling through the air at 700 miles per hour, I feel that the book I am reading should also be moving super-fast? The Long Ships does move really fast, for the entirety of its nearly 500 pages. And it's great fun the whole way through.
It's hard sometimes to see a book with a 10th century setting in Scandinavia, with the spread of the Church and lots of plagues and raids and pillaging and think that it could be light-hearted. But much like Barry Hughart brings froth and fun and humor to ancient China, Frans Bengtsson makes the 10th century seem like it was a whole lot of fun, at least if you were a Viking. Orm's story begins when he is abducted from his home, follows him as he becomes a slave and then a trusted bodyguard for the Caliph, describes him leaving the Caliph after stealing a massive church bell, and then has him returning triumphantly home and setting up his own family before leaving on one last hurrah of adventure later in life.
There were so many things I enjoyed about this book - even in translation, the writing is glorious. The humor is so witty, not only in the high-school-locker-room-testosterone sort of way, but also in the gentle way everyone has of not taking anyone else too seriously. And while I don't generally read adventure stories, this one was great. I can't put my finger on why. I think because Orm and his friends were so pragmatic about everything. Like, "Oh, I've been captured as a slave, but no doubt I'll find a way out of it soon" or "Well, my current gods aren't helping me that much and this priest is offering me some money to convert and claims that the world is ending soon, so I guess I could become Christian." And the way that fights just break out randomly everywhere with people getting horribly hurt or killed, and everyone around them just gathering around (you can practically see them pumping their fists, shouting "Fight! Fight! Fight!") to watch - it's all just a great historical romp.
Obviously, when you think of Vikings, you think of ships, and the two sections of this book that take place on ships and abroad are great fun to read, but the part of the story that takes place when Orm is home is just as enjoyable. It's so fun to see a character grow from moody teenager to cocky 20-something to middle-aged father, especially when that character is Orm. Also, Orm's wife Ylva is pretty awesome - I wish she was in the story more than she is, but whenever she's there, she's just a lot of fun and wins every argument and gets her way all the time. Actually, most of the women in this story are awesome. There's a lot of Viking complaints about women and how irrational they are, but all of the women who populate this story are strong and intelligent and a whole lot of fun.
An entertaining, funny and great read that is perfect for a cold winter day and night. Check it out!