When I started reading the first volume of this series, I had high expectations for it. After all, it was from the creator of “Planetes,” still the best manga ever published by Tokyopop, and the placement of each new volume on the sales charts indicated that this story about vikings had transcended whatever limitations doing a story like that for the Japanese market might have come with. If you read my review, you’ll know that my expectations were only met partway. The second volume had its issues, but proved to be an improvement over what had come before and left me eager to see what was going to happen next. Now the third volume is here and I can say that this is one of the most thrilling books I’ve read so far this year.
The previous volume left off after Askeladd’s band had ruthlessly murdered a small English town for their supplies and a place to hole up for the winter free from the pursuit of Thorkell and his men. Unfortunately for them, one girl did escape the slaughter and now Thorkell’s crew is on the hunt. Not only does this prompt a hasty escape from Askeladd, but it also sows discord in the ranks of his men as they believe the man’s luck has finally turned for the worse. While Thorfinn continues to bide his time in his quest for vengeance against the man who killed his father, Canute, the captured heir to the Danish throne, undergoes a crisis and subsequent revelation that changes the very course of this series.
I was expecting a 500-page game of cat-and-mouse with Askeladd escaping Thorkell’s pursuit through the skin of his teeth and a great deal of the cleverness we’ve seen him display in the title so far. I’m sure that would’ve been fun to see, but it didn’t happen. To my great enjoyment, this turned out to be a really unpredictable volume where I couldn’t accurately guess what direction the narrative was going to go. Would Askeladd’s men really turn on him after all they’ve been through together? Was mangaka Makoto Yukimura really going to kill off the viking leader after he stayed behind to fight? What was going to happen to Canute when he was left alone with a berserking Bjorn and the drunken monk for protection? I certainly had my guesses for these things, but they didn’t turn out to be right. Even better was the fact that all of the story’s twists and turns were grounded in the actions of the characters themselves and didn’t feel like a cheap attempt to drum up excitement at the expense of logic. After a while I just stopped trying to guess what would happen and let myself become fully immersed in the story.
This volume also offers more concrete, visual pleasures that the abstract feelings I described above. We get a couple big fights involving the likes of Askeladd and some forty-odd assailants, Thorfinn and Thorkell duking it out in a contest of speed vs. strength that stretches into two “rounds,” and the aforementioned Berserker Bjorn bringing the pain to anyone he finds within his arm’s reach. Each of these offers more than pure visceral thrills as we come to understand more about each character through these encounters. Whether it’s the lengths Askeladd will go to keep his plans in motion when all seems lost or just how singleminded Thorfinn is in his pursuit of vengeance, all of these scenes serve to give the cast more depth. Or show them capable of some real devil-may-care badassery, as we see in Askeladd’s “final” words to his men. Even bitter comedy as well, such as when Thorkell tells Thorfinn of his final encounter with the young man’s father and then calls him out for not having learned anything from his father -- only for Thorfinn to realize that his opponent is right.
These moments are numerous and possess great range as to their subject matter and tone. Yet none are more interesting than what Canute goes through in the volume’s second half. While his introduction as a mute pretty-boy in the previous volume was played more for comedic effect than anything else, there were moments like his outburst at Thorfinn’s mocking that suggested there was more to his character. We get to see that here as a sudden, malicious loss sends the young man into shock and causes his personal world to collapse. It’s after this, that he finds himself in council with the ale-soused Father who finally tells us what his concept of “love” is.
The Father’s words are heavily steeped in religious theory, but avoid the trappings of a specific dogma. It’s likely that if you harbor strong religious beliefs then his words will likely offend you as the conclusion that while there is much love to be found in God’s kingdom, there is none in the hearts of men. I’m generally apathetic towards religion so none of this really bothered me. More to the point, the Father’s theory works extremely well in the context of “Vinland Saga’s” narrative where death is an everyday part of Viking life. It’s his words that Canute takes to heart, uses to find the strength to carry on and forge a new status quo at the end of the volume. It blew my mind seeing the transformation this character underwent, and the payoff for it was immediate leading to some fierce momentum heading into the next volume.
Some may say that Canute’s transformation happens too quick, as while the events may play out over the course of a hundred pages they don’t seem to take very long in real time. I’d disagree with them as it’s clear that Yukimura has put some thought into the ideas behind it. More of an issue is how over-the-top some of the fighting can get in this volume. While seeing Thorkell gut-uppercut a horse is undeniably badass in both action and its defiance of logic, seeing him kick Thorfinn with the same results of a football after kickoff defies belief in a less awesome way. Then you’ve also got that flashback to Thorkell’s last meeting with Thors which grinds the narrative to a halt so that we can get some information that’s very specific to the story at hand. It annoys me when “Blade of the Immortal” does this, and that’s still the case here.
These are minor quibbles, however, in a volume that shows “Vinland Saga” to really be hitting its stride. I also don’t know if these American editions, which contain two Japanese volumes, were packaged the way they are because of concerns about how it would sell versus the need to make sure the entire series was published in English. I’m glad for whoever made that call as the wait between the two volumes contained here would’ve been brutal with the momentum they build up. As it is, the next volume arrives in July, which is a thought almost as exciting as Comic-Con itself.