I wasn’t expecting this volume to match the utterly gripping drama of its predecessor. The setup, payoff, and twists in between that were delivered in vol. 4 represent one of the most satisfying comic book reads I’ve experienced all year. To try and top that, well, it’d be a tall order from even the best of creators. Fortunately Makoto Yukimura let us know with the final two chapters of that volume that there was going to be a de-escalation of drama with the title’s new status quo. With all that in mind, does this latest edition of “Vinland Saga” still represent a satisfying reading experience? Indeed it does.
After being robbed of his vengeance against Askeladd -- the only thing that gave his life meaning -- Thorfinn was sold into slavery and wound up on the estate of a landowner named Ketil in Denmark. We found this out after another slave, an energetic “glass half full” fellow by the name of Einar, winds up on the same estate. With the promise that after Einar and Thorfinn will be freed after they’ve cleared the portion of the land entrusted to them and sold enough wheat from the fields they’ve cultivated, the former sees plenty of reasons to be optimistic about life at the moment. As for Thorfinn, he simply feels empty and makes do by going through the same motions day after day. Not even the threat of being used as a sacrificial lamb to prove the manhood of the owner’s son causes him to raise his voice or fists in protest. Only the teachings of his two fathers -- biological and metaphorical -- are going to be able to see him out of the wilderness here.
Even if there are times when he feels like a supporting character in the title’s vast cast, vol. 5 is really about Thorfinn’s journey to enlightenment. He starts out as someone without even a reason to live and slowly starts to come around to the idea of a life not defined by or lived on the battlefield. There’s the friendship he slowly develops with Einar, the pride they develop in working the fields, and their struggles against the prejudices others hold against them because they’re slaves. Though all this, Thorfinn has to deal with the trauma all those years as a warrior have inflicted on his subconscious mind. Mangaka Makoto Yukimura skillfully realizes this first through the night terrors we see the character having, and then the actual recurring dream itself. It’s not until Thorfinn has a breakthrough moment and throws a punch for the sake of someone other than himself than we see what has been holding him back all this time.
That leads to the volume’s high point and the return of Thorfinn’s two fathers as they impart some final wisdom to him. I think it’s telling that while his biological father only expresses regret at what he didn’t teach him, his metaphorical father is the one who provides the advice that allows the young man to finally transcend his limitations. Put in cynical terms, he becomes a “I’M A MAN OF PEACE! I’M DONE KILLING!” kind of character. If that’s not tempting fate in the brutal world of “Vinland Saga,” then I don’t know what is. Whether or not he’ll be able to stick to his newfound vow, that’ll be the real test and inevitable source of drama in the series going forward from here. Thorfinn’s arc may have a familiar ring to it, but Yukimura’s execution makes it feel worthwhile nonetheless.
It’s not all about Thorfinn in this volume as we get to see a host of new characters added to the title’s cast in this volume. As I mentioned, we get to see more of Einar whose boisterous nature contrasts well with Thorfinn’s taciturn-ness and acts as a catalyst for the character’s transformation. We learn more about the landowner they work for, Ketil, here as well. Of note is the fact that he used to be called “Iron Fist Ketil” on the battlefield and was a genuine terror in his younger days. Now, he pauses at punishing children for stealing from his storehouses. Whether or not this man will be able to protect his land and his family from those who would covet what he has remains to be seen.
Brand new to this volume are the likes of Ketil’s two sons, Olimar and Thorgil. The former is a fool who serves as a good deal of comic relief in this volume as he desperately wants to prove his worth as a man in battle, but clearly lacks any aptitude for it. Thorgil, on the other hand, is a seasoned warrior and a brutal character who scoffs at what he sees as his father’s doddering ways. Then you’ve got Snake, the head of the band of mercenaries who guards Ketil’s land. He’s a seasoned warrior whose laid-back demeanor hides his rougher edges. There’s Pater, the former slave who now acts as an overseer on the land, and Ketil’s dad Sverkel whose stubbornness has him working the land well after the time you’d expect him to be enjoying retirement. Even if none of these characters break the mold in terms of characterization, they’re at least fleshed out enough to come off as meaningful presences on the page. That’s “meaningful” in that I care enough about them to hope that they aren’t brutally murdered in battle or in a back alley at some point in this series.
Yukimura hasn’t forgotten the rest of the cast, though. We get a two-chapter interlude here to catch us up on what Canute and Thorkell have been doing since the murder of King Sweyn. Sporting a visible scar from that event, Canute has clearly taken the lessons he learned from Askeladd to heart in the time since the man’s death. It’s actually quite thrilling to see him bring a belligerent English noble to heel as he plots to keep the power he has on the throne. Thorkell remains Thorkell, as he remains battle-hungry to the exclusion of almost all else. Though he still fights for Canute, the young noble’s methods don’t do much for him aside from sour his wine. It’s easy to read his comments as simple belligerence, but this is also a character who we were introduced to after it was revealed that he started fighting for the English simply because he wanted a bigger battle to fight. That he would do so again is more than plausible here.
Whether or not the paths Canute and Thorkell are on now will eventually cross with Thorfinn’s is certainly a matter of “when” rather than “if.” As to whether or not those two will like what they’ll find… I can’t say. Though a lot of the overall storytelling in this volume of “Vinland Saga” rings familiar, the execution is still solid enough to keep my attention even in light of the general lack of excitement here compared to what has come before. Though I can see the general direction of the story -- expect some kind of fight for Ketil’s farm that will test the convictions of everyone on it in the future -- the specifics elude me. Here, Yukimura shows that he’s good with those specifics and knows how to spin them into a worthwhile reading experience.