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Vinland Saga vol. 2

January 29, 2014

Now this is more like it!  The first volume of Makoto Yukimura’s viking epic contained over a hundred thrilling pages that set the stage for the story in dramatic fashion.  They were then followed by a few hundred more of a flashback to earlier days in the lives of our protagonist and one of the key supporting characters which were well done, but still covered a lot of familiar narrative ground.  This second volume begins with another flashback one-off before diving back into the “present day” of 1013 AD as the story deepens and really starts to sink its narrative hooks into you.  I was certainly captivated by nearly all of what I read here, though I do realize that there are certain issues that may prevent others from feeling the same.

Even with all of the flashback in the previous volume, I will concede that I would’ve liked to  see how the newly fatherless Thorfinn assimilated into Askeladd’s band of vikings after stowing away with them.  Joining up under the man who murdered his father at such a young age couldn’t have been easy for him, and the forging of the uneasy truce the two have would’ve made for interesting drama.  Still, based on the opening story I can imagine how it would’ve worked because even though he’s just a little kid, Thorfinn is as ruthless a killer as they come (almost).

After being taken in by a woman and her daughter, a younger Thorfinn gets a taste of good English hospitality and winds up caring for them more than he expected.  So much so that he warns them to run before he goes about letting the rest of his crew know that there’s a village here ready to be pillaged.  The chaos that follows establishes Thorfinn as a more than capable killer, but one who is forced to see firsthand where compassion gets you in the world he now lives in.  What we see here effectively sets the stage for the rest of the volume.

Then we flash forward five years to find the Danish invasion of England in full swing, with the vikings pillaging the countryside to their heart’s content.  It’s here that the story really gets going with the Siege of London and the introduction of Thorkell the Tall.  He’s the breakout character of this volume -- a viking who betrayed his comrades to fight on the side of the English simply because of the challenge it represents.  Boisterous and arrogant in equal measure, Thorkell is the kind of fighter who can rally an army and turn the tide of battle simply by sheer force of personality alone.  Though he lives for battle, we find out that there’s a deeper reason for it than simply love of the fight.  All this, and the fact that he resembles what Vash the Stampede would look like if he embraced pro wrestling over gunfighting, make him someone whose presence enlivens every page he’s on.

Thorkell is still a supporting character, though, and the majority of the volume is concerned with Askeladd’s scheming.  Yes, Thorfinn is still a presence throughout, but here he’s mainly following in the wake of the older viking’s plans.  They include recapturing the Danish prince Canute who has fallen into Thorkell’s hands for the glory and rewards that it would bring.  That’s enough to motivate his men, which is good for Askeladd as his real plans are far more ambitious and wide-reaching than he’s letting on to them.

It’s things like that which help the story transcend its initial appeal of seeing vikings pillage the countryside in ruthlessly efficient fashion.  Yukimura mixes politics, historical fiction about the real King Arthur, and lots of backstabbing into a fiercely delicious stew.  The fact that we’ve got a compelling cast of characters like Askeladd, Thorfinn and Thorkell to follow only adds to the excitement.  We’re also introduced to additional characters in this volume like Prince Canute who appears to be a painfully shy coward at first, yet reveals unexpected depths in his conversations with Thorfinn.  There’s also the mead-soaked priest who is introduced as essentially a joke character along with the prince’s entourage.  Yet we find out that there’s more to him in his quest for “love” and the reaction he shows to the story about Thors’ fight with Askeladd’s men.

If this was all there was to the story, then this is where I’d end things and tell all of you to go out and buy a copy now.  As in RIGHT NOW!  Except that it’s not.  You see, there are a couple issues that bear mentioning as they relate to the overall “likeability” of the crew in this story.  That is to say, if you require the characters in the stories to read to be likeable, then you’re going to have a problem with this volume of “Vinland Saga.”

Though there is a fair amount of glorification regarding the exploits of Askeladd’s men, the point is made throughout the story here that they are not nice people at all.  They pillage ruthlessly, fight without honor, and get into senseless fights while they’re partying.  If you weren’t convinced that these people are not heroic by the time of the final chapter, there’s one particularly brutal scene in a village that spells it out for you.  It’s not that the scene itself is drenched in gore, but Yukimura so effectively lays it out with images and a few choice words from Askeladd that the impact is felt squarely in your imagination.

This would be a larger problem if it weren’t for the fact that this is clearly part of the mangaka’s plan.  My money is on seeing a large portion of them slaughtered in the next volume with only Thorfinn and Canute certain to survive.  Your mileage may vary, but they’re likeable by my standards as is Askeladd.  Even with all of the things we’ve seen him do and his own thoughts on the men he leads, the man is a fascinating character to watch in action all due to his understanding of the world and the men he meets.  Also, his understanding of his place within it as well, seen best in his history lesson to Thorfinn in a conversation held amongst old Roman ruins.

The other main issue with this volume is thankfully brief but potentially more off-putting to many.  As part of his effort to spell out how unlikeable these vikings are, Yukimura has a group of them bring in a village woman to the stable Thorfinn is sleeping in, beat her, stick a rag in her mouth and then proceed to rape her off-panel.  The scene leaves many details up to the reader’s imagination, avoiding the salaciousness that made that first volume of “Tenjo Tenge” infamous amongst many.  It’s not entirely gratuitous, as it does go to show Thorfinn’s abandonment of compassion after the events of the opening story.  Yet surely there were other ways to show this that didn’t involve rape?  Also, we see Thorkell’s group of vikings joking about how the English women’s sense of shame is such a turn-on with a cute picture to illustrate the fact.  It would be amusing if it weren’t for the fact that the scene I just described gave you an idea as to what that situation really entailed.  Thankfully, these are the only scenes dealing with such things in this volume and I hope that it’s the last we’ll see of them in this particular fashion here.

If you can get past these things, then the world and overall narrative of “Vinland Saga” has a lot to offer.  It’s a rousing adventure story with real depth, memorable characters, and fantastic art.  There are those sticking points, but they ultimately proved to be minor impediments to my enjoyment of this volume.  I doubt everyone else will feel the same, yet I hope I’ve provided enough context here for you to decide if this series is worth your time.

Jason Glick

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