Saturday, May 29, 2010

Review: Northlanders: Sven the Returned

Sven the Returned is the first trade collection of Brian Wood's Northlanders series. Set in 980 a.d. Northlanders follows Sven, who has returned to his ancestral lands in Orkney to claim the inheritance left by his recently deceased father. Sven's plan is to quickly show up, get his money, and head back to Constantinople where he has spent most of his life amongst the palaces, as an elite soldier. Of course, things aren't that easy. He returns to discover that his uncle, Gorm has claimed Sven's birthright. Sven however, is not discouraged by his Uncle's betrayal. Nor does he fear the small army of men loyal to Gorm who view Sven as a traitor. Sven embarks on a one man war to claim his birthright.

Filled with hardcore Viking action and gore, Sven the Returned is a pleasure to look at. Illustrated by Davide Gianfelice, the artwork is quite stunning. Gianfelice and colorist Dave McCaig do a fantastic job of nailing the harsh northern climate setting, using flat-toned hues to lend a real life quality to the beautiful backdrops and scenery. Gianfelice also manages to make the brutality of combat look beautiful, yet realistically gory. Lots of blood was spilled in this graphic novel, but considering the weapons of choice for that time, it seemed perfect.

I wish I could say as many nice things about the writing as I could the art. But I cant. Once again, I find myself let down by Brian Wood. A major snag for me was the language used. Wood completely modernized the dialog to the point that the vikings talk like cheesy modern day action movie characters. Juxtaposed with the art work which depicted period specific clothing, weaponry, tools, dwellings, etc. this felt incredibly out of place. I wouldn't have minded too much if the dialog had been moderately update so as to not be archaic, but this just felt like overkill.

Wood's plotting led to other annoyances. The first being Sven's affair with Thora, one of Gorm's love-slaves. At one point while they are banging, Sven states: "She was my first, when we were young. I suppose I made all kinds of stupid promises to get her to fuck me." However, about forty pages later while Wood is giving Sven's back-story, we see that he left his village at a very young age. I would guess, from the art depiction, the way child-Sven acted and behaved, and the other back-story events, that he was about ten years old at the time. Maybe he did have sex with Thora at age ten, but it seems highly unlikely and was an annoying flaw in the story.

Another plotting complaint is the conflict between Sven and Gorm's right-hand man, Hakkar. From the very first moment they meet, (Hakkar knocks Sven out with a brutal uppercut) the two seem to be on a collision course. For much of the book I was anticipating this eventual showdown, but it never happens, though there was plenty of opportunity for them to throw down. Instead, amidst contrived formality they become "brothers" or some lame thing like that, and it all felt like such a cop out.

I had other gripes too, including the characters, all of which were poorly developed, and the plotting, which lacked focus, and came to a uninteresting climax. As much as I wanted to like Sven the Returned, I simply couldn't. In most cases, the combo of vikings, sword fights, and sex would be a hit for me, but this just fell flat. This may be the end of the road for me and Brian Wood.

Grade: C-

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