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What On Infinite Earths is: Northlanders?

G D Penman By G D Penman Published on November 21, 2016
This article was updated on December 16, 2016

Before I even get started talking about Northlanders there are a couple of fair warnings that I should give you. The first is that I am a big fan of dark fantasy, particularly relatively low magic dark fantasy where the “grit” of the characters comes to the forefront and modern language, rather than period appropriate language, is used to evoke the feelings that the author is going for. Similar to my love for Baz Luhrman’s musical choices in period pieces when he chooses to evoke modern sensibilities through anachronisms there.

The second thing that you need to know is that I am something of a history buff and I am pretty fond of the wide reaching Vikings. As such, Northlanders occupies a unique point on the venn diagram of my interests. It is a historical drama that uses modern language, and a fair bit of modern interpretation to capture the spirit of Viking culture rather than the facts of it. The comic is split up into different stories, short and long, some of which return after long periods away at sea and others that disappear beneath the surface without a trace after only a single issue.

While the desire for “realism” in fiction is entirely facetious, the particular brand of unreality contained within Northlanders really appeals to me. The world of these comics is dark, cruel and miserable, so each time that a character rises up in any small act of heroism you truly feel it. None of the heroes are truly good, at least according to modern morality, but at the same time none of the villains are completely without remorse. There is a humanity to every character, a very basic understanding of how real people behave, that is often missing from historical fiction.

Actual history books tend to be quite dry and distant, people are judged by their actions over the course of a lifetime rather than in the heat of the moment. Personality is less important to history than effect. Northlanders takes the opposite tact, it puts humanity front and centre in its histories and I wonder how much more effective an educational tool these comics might be than the supposedly introductory tomes that I had to wade through in school. They would certainly spark an interest much more easily.

The key area that these comics really nail is religion. The faith of the Vikings was fundamental to how they perceived the world and how they behaved. Their gods were not abstracts, ideas hidden off in the clouds but real living beings that walked the earth alongside mankind and that, should you travel far enough, you may well cross paths with. Northlanders captures this ambiguity nicely. There are moments that can be read as the character’s interpretation or as direct, divine intervention and either way, the story flows along just as perfectly.

Northlanders has its gruesome moments so the squeamish might want to avoid it, but for those looking for a historical drama or fantasy story with heart, guts and every other organ spilling out of it, you could do a lot worse.

    G.D. Penman writes about queer monsters for a living. He is the author of Call Your Steel, The Year of the Knife, Heart of Winter, Apocrypha and many other books. He is also a full-time freelance ... Show More