Book review: Crowbone by Robert Low

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What a pleasure it is to be back on the Whale Road with Orm Bear-Slayer and his not-so-merry men, the Viking gang that makes Robin Hood look like a medieval milksop!

Fans have been pleading for the return of Robert Low’s blockbuster Oathsworn series and the fifth instalment of the raiders’ 10th century adventures in lawless Europe delivers on every count.

This is the raw power of Norse politics and warfare in all its savage and fabled viciousness, a place where personal battles are played out with sharpened axe heads, and ambition and revenge are the driving forces.

The latest chapter in Low’s earthy warrior saga still has the same visceral power with epic, eloquent prose recounting tales of blood-soaked brutality, fearsome feuds and heroic quests.

On the Island of Mann in 979AD, an elderly Christian priest reveals on his deathbed that he has a message he cannot take to his grave.

He has a sworn secret that must be passed on only to Olaf Tryggvasson, kin of Harald Fairhair of the Yngling line and true prince of Norway, a man also known as Crowbone.

Crowbone, a petulant, spirited youth of 16, was freed from slavery by Orm, legendary leader of the Oathsworn, eight years ago and is now a member of the Viking gang. But his life is lived on a knife-edge balance ‘where the stirred air from a whirring bird’s wings could topple him to doom or raise him to the throne he considered his right.’

And so begins a quest to discover the meaning of the message and for Crowbone to gain what is rightfully his – the crown of Norway. With a band of Chosen Men, Crowbone begins an unforgiving journey that will see him face the challenge of new enemies and confront his suspicions of treachery from old friends.

Looming over all is Gunnhild, the Witch Mother of Kings and Crowbone’s arch-enemy, who will stop at nothing to prevent him from knowing where the secret is, and who will test the bonds that tie together the Oathsworn.

Low’s narrative is lyrically descriptive and yet has an almost tangible sense of earth-bound reality with words and phrases ground out of the bleak and barren wastelands which form the compelling backcloth to a thrilling story.

The humour is dark, the characters are rough-hewn, the endless fight for survival is strength-sapping and pain-racked, and the lesson in Norse history and mythology is more exciting and colourful than any that could be gleaned from a school history book.

The Vikings are back... and not a moment too soon!

(HarperCollins, hardback, £14.99)