Oft-used words have a tendency to go dull and flat as a long-circulated penny, and few illustrate this truth as well as "value." Constant bombardments by advertisers and blandishments from economics professors have transformed it into an irrelevant abstraction, set adrift from any particular meaning. But every now and again, real life likes to drop an example of value into our laps just to remind us of the term’s true heft. Consider Lars Walker’s The Year of the Warrior, a tome containing not one but two keep-you-up-into-the-wee-hours novels, the historical fantasy Erling’s Word (previously reviewed here) and its sequel, The Ghost of the God-Tree.
God-Tree opens with Ailill, a failed Irish monk who was stolen from his homeland by marauding Vikings, growing more reconciled to his role as priest for Erling Skjalgsson, one of Norway’s few Christian lords. Not only has Erling secured the second-highest position in the land through marriage, he has begun to construct a network of roads with an eye toward revitalizing trade. But trouble is brewing for the lord and his priest. Rumors abound that the king has begun to forcibly convert unbelievers, that his bishop believes the Apocalypse will come in less than two years and that his right-hand man is an auguring deacon who foresees the future in the bones of birds. There’s no shortage of trouble close to home either. A Gnostic seemingly possessing the power to warp reality to his will has begun harrying Erling’s territory. And a heathen woman to whom Ailill finds himself powerfully drawn claims she has found an invisible tree that may lead into Thor’s domain.
Ailill’s acceptance of his holy duty renders God-Tree a little episodic in places, removing the delicious irony that gave Erling’s Word its central conflict. Walker makes up for it, though, with a canny eye for the unanticipated, his plot remaining unpredictable while staying true to characters and setting. Also in evidence is a wry sense of humor. An encounter with a pagan deity bent on becoming more just than Jehovah causes Ailill to ask the god how many conflicts he’s successfully resolved so far. "Well, not any, actually," the divinity answers. "It’s all so complicated … But once I get my caseload under control, it will be better, I’m certain." There are more than a few lyrical turns of phrase, too. On Jul Eve, when the dead of the past year return home one final time, the priest spies the shade of an unrequited love who perished in childbirth. "Death had not withered [her]," he reminisces. "For me rather, she withered death." Start counting your pennies: This Year is worth every one.
(Picture: CC 2006 by Lee Nachtigal)