Stories have a funny way of associating themselves with random parts of life. John Christopher’s post-apocalyptic YA novel The White Mountains makes me think about how, at age 13, a reading buddy and I translated its sense of daring into a clandestine (and illegal, I now suspect) trek to a junction box outside his house to see if we could wiretap his parents’ phone. An abortive attempt to delve into Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World recalls an agonizingly dull drive across the state of Kansas, the endless road straight as a ruler and surrounded by mile after mile of homogenous farmland. Now having just finished West Oversea, the third title in Lars Walker’s Saga of Erling Skjalgsson series, I’m drawn back to the first time my wife and I rode a waverunner together -- pulses pounding, eyes slit against the salt spray, the wrinkled water spinning beneath us with exhilarating speed.
Father Ailill, Irish refugee and priest to Norwegian lord Erling Skjalgsson, harbors no such pleasant feelings for the ocean. Plagued with sea sickness and disdainful of the cold, cramped quarters of Viking vessels, he’d just as soon keep his feet on terra firma, thank you very much. But after hearing a rumor that his long-lost sister may be alive in Greenland, he begins to consider the possibility of a journey. When he discovers a pagan artifact that allows its bearer to portend the future, he sets his heart on it, certain of success. He has little trouble drawing Erling to his way of thinking. Erling’s older brother, thought to have died years ago, has mysteriously reappeared, laying claim to the estate. Stripped of land, wealth and title, Erling sees maritime trade as his only option. But neither he or Ailill can imagine the perils that await them, nor the depth of vengeance that will drive a wrathful shapeshifter to stalk their crew across the tossing seas.
As you may have guessed from the first paragraph, West Oversea isn’t a calm, meditative book. No, it picks up and rolls. The two novels collected in The Year of the Warrior had shades of epic and horror in them, but West reads almost like an adult version of C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a fast-moving adventure neatly sectioned by periods aboard ship. Also, Walker hasn’t lost his eye for compelling conflict or his sardonic sense of humor. Mulling over why no one wants to share a sleeping bag with him while at sea -- standard practice to keep from freezing -- Ailill states, “I couldn’t really blame them; there’s a common idea that a man who wears a robe (on Sundays anyway), shaves his face and never sleeps with a woman must have something lacking, or something extra.” The only interludes that ring false are a pair of visions the priest has of Europe rent by Islamist imperialism and America ravaged by civil war. But these are minor flaws. Go West, good reader; it’s an exciting trip.
(Picture: Copyright 2009 by Noble Novels; used by permission)