Forged by Iron, by Eric Schumacher
4 out of 5 stars
[Disclosure: The author provided a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.]
Forged by Iron is based on Olaf Trygvason’s saga, which appears in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, among other sources. Fortunately for modern storytellers, the sagas tend to focus on the big picture, which leaves plenty of room for literary license, and Schumacher’s retelling modifies some aspects of the story for narrative purposes.
The story is told from the perspective of twelve-year-old Torgil Torolvson, whose father is a lord loyal to King Trygvi and whose foster sister, Astrid, is the king’s wife. Just as Torolv protects Astrid, Torgil is (to his dismay) expected to mind the king’s mischievous son, Olaf. When the king is killed by traitors and his home is attacked, Torgil and his father rush Astrid, Olaf, and two servants to safety. After a brief stay with Astrid’s father, they disguise themselves and flee east to find Astrid’s brother. Unfortunately, the Norns are not on their side, and they do not reach their intended destination.
Schumacher has clearly done significant research into the sagas as well as the cultures and geography of the Old Norse world. By choosing relatively young point-of-view character, he has found a natural way to explain the attitudes, norms, and politics of the era, as the reader learns hard lessons about the world alongside Torgil.
One of things I loved about this story was the way Schumacher maintains the slow-burning fear that drives his characters. He keeps that underlying sense of urgency alive in subtle ways, and you’re never allowed to forget that the main characters are in constant danger, even when things seem to be going their way.
Structurally, the pacing is good and the story never drags. Schumacher very effectively uses the quieter scenes for world building and character development, slowly ratcheting up the tension that gets released in dramatic, fast-paced fight sequences.
There are a couple of spots where the plot stumbles, however. The most troublesome, in my opinion, was the occurrence of a sexual assault that neither drives the plot nor plays into the victim’s character development in any significant way. If the point was to highlight the omnipresent dangers surrounding the group, more subtle techniques for creating tension would have been far more effective. Fortunately, since Torgil does not actually witness the assault, it is not described in any detail.
Additionally, I think the story would have benefited from more detailed character development overall. While the character development is excellent, it is sparse. Naturally, we get to know Torgil quite well, and his close relationship with Olaf provides some uncomfortable glimpses of the young prince’s complicated character. Unfortunately, the other major characters don’t achieve quite the same level fullness. Turid, in particular, comes off a bit flat, although it’s clear that the author has made an effort to be sensitive to her particular circumstances.
In general, the focus seems to be on developing the plot more than the characters. Personally, I cherish stories where the characters are real enough to breathe, so the minimalist approach to character development isn’t my cup of tea. On the other hand, readers who prefer fast-paced action and adventure stories will be enthralled by Schumacher’s storytelling.
I would definitely recommend Forged by Iron to readers looking for a Viking Age excitement.