Thunder God by Paul Watkins

A saga with uneven breaks
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The Independent Culture

This is an odd concoction: a painstaking re-creation of a remote period à la Robert Graves, although Paul Watkins's milieu is the 10th century AD, as Norsemen and their gods clash with the rise of Christianity. His novel is garnished with a historian's attention to detail; there are a series of crises de conscience for the wandering hero and, finally, some bloody set-pieces to increase the pulse rate.

Watkins binds disparate elements with panache, and only the anachronistic sensibility of his Norse hero jars. Do readers of historical novels demand the same sleight-of-hand, modernising tricks that the movies adopt? Wolfgang Petersen's Troy may drop the gods and Cassandra to ensure that we're not too distracted from the pecs and cleavage of its stars, but Watkins gives us more information on the Norse gods than the lay reader is ever likely to have encountered. Fortunately, the marriage of information and narrative is smoothly effected.

Watkins's own background (Welsh parents, brought up in the US, Eton-educated) may account for the outsider status he gives his hero, who has the protean lifestyle necessary to survive in different societies. As a boy, Hakon is struck by lightning. He is adopted by a priest who sees him as a saviour of his people. Kidnapped by Danish raiders, Hakon becomes a slave in Byzantium. At this point, Thunder God really begins to engage as a picture of the pre-modern world. The casual mutilations and the complex relationship of master and slave are just two elements in this exotic brew.

The jacket chosen for Watkins's saga may suggest a more cerebral novel than the one delivered. After all the historical accretions are stripped away, this is seat-of-the-pants adventure storytelling - and what's wrong with that?

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