It is 976 AD. Bjolf and his motley crew are having a run of bad luck. They've had wind of a cushy, easily-raidable village on the back end of beyond. But when they show up, axes sharpened and ready to raid, Bjolf's men discover that a rival band of vikings have already looted it. Worse yet, the rival band (bigger, meaner and better equipped) are still in the area. Bjolf rapidly goes from predator to prey - forced to return to his ship at a very un-Viking-like run.
The Hrafn, Bjolf's ship, loses her pursuers at sea - helped by a convenient (if terrifying) fog. The Vikings wash up in a strange and spooky land. The natives live huddled behind an enormous wooden stockade - the reason for which becomes apparent when the first zombies stagger out of the forest.
Just to be clear, The Viking Dead is about Vikings... fighting zombies.
And, just to be completely clear, it is awesome.
There are some key structural reasons behind Mr. Venables' tome of legitimate awesomesauce.
First, Vikings. In The Viking Dead, Vikings are enormous, wise-cracking soldiers that combine masculine chutzpah with martial prowess. They're kind to women, paternal to young boys and operate by a complex code of honor that John Wayne would envy. Sure, they raid, but our good Vikings do so in a largely bloodless fashion - terrifying the farmfolk into handing over their goods. A spot of plunder is lovely in the morning, but there's no reason to be a dick about it. Vikings also never leave a man behind and occasionally rescue kittens from trees. In a bit of hyper-geographical fun, Mr. Venables also populates the crew of the Hrafn with a global grab-bag of Vikings. Byzantine Vikings, British Vikings, Finnish Vikings, Icelandic Vikings... even a lady-Viking and little-boy-Viking that tag along... all wrapped in their own particular stereotype and armed with a distinctive martial knack.
Second, the Dead. Toby Venables has the sort of perverse imagination that makes me glad he's not in my gaming group. Primarily, he serves up the bog-standard, slow-moving, hit-them-in-the-brain zombie-zombie. However, that's not all that's on the menu. The Viking Dead also has, well, Viking undead - a pack of super-sized mega-zombie berserkers armed with a vicious melange of cutting/bashing/pulverizing instruments. And, perhaps the best of all, Mr. Venables invents an entire zombie ecosystem. Imagine, if zombies make zombies by devouring them, what happens to your bog-standard carrion-devouring wildlife? Zombie crows are horrific, but the zombie ants take the cake.
Third, Vikings fighting the Dead. If you're not expecting 352 pages of bloody rumble, you're reading the wrong book. The Viking Dead is about as subtle as either of its namesakes. There's a bit of a distraction at the beginning, as Vikings fight Vikings. But this is really a warm-up...
Vikings fight zombies here and there
Then they fight them everywhere
They fight zombies in a boat
They fight zombies that can float
They fight zombies in the rain
They fight zombies armed with chains
They fight zombies from a box
They fight zombies with the pox*
Fourth, it actually works as a story. Mr. Venables' lunatic, anachronistic Vikings are a genuinely entertaining bunch of savages. They're not the brightest group of zombie-chopping raiders, but they endeared themselves to me with their manly-man acceptance of their insanely bad luck. The Viking Dead does a sketchy (but successful) job of outlining their evolution as heroes. Bjolf starts as a selfish raider, becomes a mercenary anti-hero and eventually finds himself as a knightly (if slightly-barbaric) crusader. None of it feels forced. Granted, the circumstances of The Viking Dead are wildly goofy to start with, but Bjolf's hearty belief in his Viking "code" leads him neatly down the path from outcast raider to altruistic savior.
Fifth, The Viking Dead has bonus depth (if you're looking for it). Not to say that this latest Tomes of the Dead entry is going to crowd King Lear out of the curriculum anywhere, but The Viking Dead does have a nice little Western-esque theme. Vikings raid - they don't produce. They're an utterly selfish part of the human ecosystem. Atli, a young village boy, craves the excitement and freedom of the Viking lifestyle. Bjolf, legendary raider, secretly wants the reverse - he constantly, wistfully banters with his best friend about retiring and having a farm. Although Atli never learns of Bjolf's dreams, he does come to acknowledge and respect his own background at Bjolf's insistence.
This connection between people (true men) and land (a true man's pastime) is flagged up repeatedly through The Viking Dead. The zombie plague is awful because it summons hordes of the brain-eating undead, but it is worse because it corrupts the land. The dead, the zombie ants, the scary trees - the very ground itself is poisoned. Bjolf warms to his role as anti-zombie messiah because it gives him a chance to protect the land for the first time in his life. This is Bjolf's opportunity to, if not produce, at least aid the means of production. This message deepens with the revelation of the zombie plague's origin. Without spoiling the mystery, it is noteworthy that a lack of respect for the land is at its core.
Still, The Viking Dead really is what it is - Vikings and zombies, gleefully bashing away at one another in a variety of strange and oddly enjoyable ways. There's no question that this book should be ridiculously awful. And, although it is ridiculous, it couldn't be further from awful. It is a testament to Mr. Venables' skill as a storyteller that The Viking Dead is pure, unadulterated, ludicrous fun - the distilled essence of pulp entertainment. Also, Vikings. (And zombies.)
*Sincere apologies to Doctor Seuss.
The Viking Dead is out 12 April 2011 from Abaddon Books. This review first appeared in Hub Magazine 138.