Series evolve. There's no getting around it. A serialized succession of novels never stays the same. Themes transmute, characters change, settings shift, and plots tie themselves into whole new shapes. After all, people don't remain the same, so why should their books? Still, it takes a truly skilled author to shepherd readers through title after changing title, and Lars Walker shows himself to be just such a one with Hailstone Mountain, the fourth installment in the Saga of Erling Skjalgsson series.
For the first time in years, Father Ailill seems to have reached a place of peace. Though political storms brew on the horizon, the lands of Erling Skjalgsson, the Norwegian lord whom he serves as priest, currently know no strife. Erling's thralls are working their way from servitude to freedom, his wife Astrid is near to giving birth, and Ailill busies himself with the spiritual duties of the parish. Only one thing appears amiss: Erling seems to have lost his appetite. A small matter for man who has survived bloodthirsty warriors, the sundering sea, and fae folk from underneath the earth -- right? Perhaps not. Erling's illness owes to no ordinary origin, and the quest to cure it will take a Viking band from Norwegian shores north the land of the mysterious Lapps and ultimately to Hailstone Mountain, a peak catacombed with caverns in which dwell a race that is said to have feasted on the blood of their own children for nigh an aeon.
If you started with Erling's Word (the series' first book) and then moved directly to Hailstone Mountain, you'd probably find yourself blinking in confusion. The tone is radically different, a sea change from grim, introspective dark fantasy to an adventurous romp in the vein of H. Rider Haggard. But it still works surprisingly well, both on a plot and thematic level. In the afterword, Walker notes how the historical record has little to say about Erling during the time in which Hailstone Mountain takes place, making it ill-suited to the dynastic machinations of his earlier tales. Also, Ailill has moved from ironclad skeptic to solid (if still sometimes conflicted) believer, so no innocent peasants inexplicably impaled on church spires or swords crossed with animated corpses in this installment. Not to say that Walker's prose has lost its bite. The adventure includes plenty of desperate battles interspersed with sly, sardonic humor. A particularly funny exchange features Ailill debating his vow of peace with an uptight man of the cloth during a battle. "You're a priest! You may not shed human blood!" his accuser wails, to which Ailill answers, "This is a club. I'll bash their skulls in, neat as can be." A few problem spots appear, though. The brisk pace means that momentous events zip by a bit too quickly. Also, one character is so profoundly annoying that I found myself wishing she'd perish any number of terrible ways, although I suspect this is how Walker intends for his readers to feel. Hailstone Mountain may diverge from its predecessors, but it's still my second-favorite Erling novel, and given Walker's writing chops, that's saying something.
(Picture: CC 2012 by CubaGallery)