on August 28, 2005
As a lover of the Icelandic sagas, and fiction that aims to emulate them, I awaited my copy of this novel from amazon.com with a burning impatience. It finally came and I plunged right in. I was not disappointed.
Jeff Janoda has written a fine piece of fiction, moving and powerful and true to the feel and spirit of the old sagas. As a writer of this sort of fiction myself (well, I've written one novel along these lines, anyway), I came to this one with some preconceptions, some personal prejudices. Indeed, I would not have approached the material as Janoda did, preferring to hew a closer line to the original saga voice. But Janoda won me over. While writing with a markedly modern sensibility and retaining the modern novelistic conventions, many of which stray far afield from the old saga techniques, Janoda brilliantly evoked the older saga form from which this novel arises.
Here is the story of two Icelandic chieftains as Arnkel Thorolfsson struggles to increase his influence and standing at the expense of another chieftain, Snorri Thorgrimsson, known as Snorri the Priest in the literature, that sly Icelander who appears in so many of the great sagas (Njal's Saga (Penguin Classics),Laxdaela Saga (Penguin Classics)). This particular tale is from Eyrbyggja Saga (Penguin Classics) and is only one of several interwoven plots found there. But Janoda has teased it out and put flesh on the bare saga bones, creating a rich and compelling modern novel of real human beings contending with one another in a harsh and unforgiving land. In the process he has recreated that world in all the rich detail and grim coloration that is only limned in the traditional sagas.
The beauty of what he's done is seen from the start as we enter the mind and heart of Ulfar Freedman, former slave of a local farmer who ekes out his livelihood on a holding that lies precariously adjacent to Arnkel Thorolfsson's steading and that of Arnkel's father, the brutal and vindictive Thorolf Lamefoot. Arnkel has his chieftainship as the result of a deal in which his father, Thorolf, sold Ulfar his property in order to buy Arnkel his position (chieftainships could be bought and sold in old Iceland). But Arnkel, who is not only proud and fierce but a good deal cleverer than his father, sees that his chieftainship came at a very great cost, the break-up and diminution of Thorolf's land holdings, thus impairing Arnkel's future inheritance. Arnkel is not prepared to pay that price and wants his full inheritance back. In fact, Thorolf, Arnkel's father, actually gained his formerly vast landholdings by killing Arnkel's grandfather in a duel after brutalizing and abandoning Arnkel's mother, the old man's proud and arrogant daughter, Gudrid. Gudrid, for her part, desperately wants her father's lands back in their entirety, too, wishing only ill on Thorolf, her former husband and tormentor, and has raised Arnkel with these things in mind.
And thus the hapless and somewhat timid Ulfar finds himself an unwitting pawn in a struggle that pits Arnkel against his father, and both of them against Ulfar's own former master, Thorbrand and his six sons. Though neighbors of Arnkel godhi, the Thorbrandssons are aligned with the famous Snorri of Helgafell, in hopes of counterbalancing Arnkel's growing strength in the district. Old Thorbrand, Ulfar's former master, also has designs on Ulfar's farm since, under Icelandic law, it reverts to him as the former master, if Ulfar dies without an heir. But Ulfar has found himself a wife and has thus inadvertently set in motion the wheels that will grind him into dust between these harsh men.
The story unfolds with much greater focus and depth than is found in the original sagas and this is part of its genius. Janoda has found what may very well be the true story of human struggle, in its endless complexity, that lay beneath what is merely a brief sub-plot in the original Eyrbyggja Saga. There the story is tersely told. It's not always clear who has done what to whom, or why. But Janoda has fleshed out the events with real people including Auln, Ulfar's betrayed wife and Halla, the arrogant daughter of Arnkel who has inherited the domineering persona of her grandmother Gudrid but who can't help desiring Thorbrand's youngest son, Illugi.
The complex game plays out as these people strive for primacy over one another, destroying lives and hope for those around them in the process. The sagas are wonderful in the richness of the stories they have to tell and it's Janoda's great strength that he has found the rich vein of human greed, folly and striving that is buried deep within the best of them. Here he has dug out the ore and refined it to purest narrative gold. If you like sagas and the novels that derive from them, this is one of the best.
author of The King of Vinland's Saga
on May 29, 2007
This is one of those books that you get so into while you're reading that you don't want it to end. Janoda has fleshed out a portion of the Eyrbyggja Saga, giving depth and dimension to the Snorri Gothi, Arnkel Gothi, and Thorbrand factions feuding, scheming, betraying and killing for possession of two farmsteads and a precious birch forest on a peninsula in 10th century western Iceland. The saga has everything a Norse and medieval history buff would want, including some really "creepy" stuff with a vengeful ghost and dark elves who live in the shadows and feed off the evil the Norse perpetrate.
Janoda's prose is fluid and effortless, and he writes as a master storyteller. I HOPE HE WRITES ANOTHER BOOK LIKE THIS ONE ON ANOTHER OF THE SAGAS!
Janoda's retelling of a classic saga is unlikely to become a bestseller given its esoteric subject matter, but that is truly a great shame as evolved readers of any stripe will surely delight in the author's wonderful skills.
Saga is about a very small community in Iceland around 965 CE, and for an historical novel, comparatively little happens--there are no grand battles, epic journeys, allusions to well-known historical events, or famous personages. The cast is limited to a dozen or so main characters and the pace of events might fairly be considered glacial. Yet for all that, the story is oddly, almost paradoxically compelling. Somehow the sparseness of the material, the humble (even dreary) circumstances within which the story unfolds, and Janoda's supremely economical--even frugal--use of language are all superbly suited to the tale and imbue it with a veracity and vigor that mere research can never match.
Like one of his humble farmer characters, Janoda painstakingly tends the unpromising soil and climate of his setting and scratches out of it a miraculous harvest of which which we lucky readers are the beneficiaries--a quirky masterpiece that transcends the seeming limitations of its subject to yield a tale that is by turns suspenseful, moving, shocking, and utterly convincing.
on June 14, 2005
Jeff Janoda proves himself to be a master storyteller as he brings tenth-century Iceland brilliantly to life. SAGA is a powerful and absorbing read, rich and authentic in detail, sharply insightful, and brimming with finely rendered characters whose lives are intricately bound through the ties of loyalty, kinship, duty, and above all, the Law. Janoda deftly handles the complexities and harsh realities of life in the early Free State, peeling away layers of motives and shrewd cunning that drives men's actions -- be it born of wisdom, high ideals, and ethical strength; greed and a lust for power and land that leads to treachery, betrayal, and bloodshed; or a more basic need to appease the gods and dark spirits that haunt the land and even, at times, the restless wanderings of the dead. This is storytelling at its best. In short SAGA is superb!
on November 23, 2010
Norse exploration and settlement of Iceland, Greenland and "Vinland" are fascinating topics and novels based on these activities are rich with promise. I read this novel soon after reading The King of Vinland's Saga and was not disappointed.
Though it appears to be a substantial work, due to heavy paper stock, it only encompasses roughly 350 pages. Even then, as a result of relatively large type and generous spacing, it reads more like a 250 page book and can easily be polished off in a weekend.
The story revolves around a colony of Norse settlers located on the coast of Iceland. The story is rich in detail, focusing on the challenges faced by the settlers and the interpersonal relationships that exist among them. Weather and conditions are harsh, but no harsher than some of the warlike and conniving homesteaders who combine to improve their lot at the expense of what they perceive to be weaker elements of the society.
All in all, this is an entertaining but not spectacular piece of work.
on February 21, 2013
Jeff Janoda has written a fine novel based on events related mainly in chapters 30-38 of Eyrbyggja Saga (Penguin Classics), The Saga of the People of Eyri. There is also a summary and an interesting commentary on these events in Chapter 6 of Jesse Byock's Viking Age Iceland.
Mr. Janoda has invented characters, events, and motivations to expand upon the original narrative. Snorri Godi and Arnkel Godi are fleshed out and brought to life. Ulfr's wife, not mentioned in the original, is an important character in this novel. There is the figure of a Norwegian merchant to offer a contrast upon Icelandic life in the Viking age, and how it differed from that of their cousins who remained behind in Scandinavia. And, although the novel is an attempt to realistically bring the saga to life, there are elves and walking dead (to my delight).
The book offers a more expanded portrayal of daily life than is often available in the original sagas, which offer only tantalizing glimpses. Mr. Janoda details people at work, feasts, courting, playing, and fighting...Although I don't always necessarily agree with the way he chose to portray the people and their activities, I admire and enjoy his efforts.
I really can't say how this book would appeal to someone who is not familiar with the sagas - I am not that person! But for someone like me, who loves and regularly revisits the family sagas of Iceland, this is definitely a book worth knowing. Different in approach and form than Undset, but just as valuable.
on September 23, 2010
I have never been much of a fiction reader and mostly concentrate on various non-fiction literature. To switch things up, I recently looked into picking up some historical fiction. My first attempt was Bernard Cornwell's series called The Saxon Stories, which deals with 9th century Danish invasion of England. While Cromwell did an excellent job incorporating many historical elements and events, his material started to dry up after the third book. I was also not too impressed by his style of writing. His books did, however, make me very interested in reading more about the Norse way of life in the Middle Ages.
I stumbled upon Jeff Janoda's novel Saga through Amazon's suggestions. Seeing that a number of people had given it very positive reviews, I decided to give it a try. To be honest, I really wasn't expecting much since the book seemed rather obscure, I couldn't quite tell if it was a historical novel or a pure work of fiction and finally it was the author's first novel. As you can obviously tell from the five stars on my review, I was very pleasantly surprised.
The book is loosely based on some history, primarily parts of Eyrbyggja Saga [...]. The characters and events seem to have been thoroughly fleshed out by the writer's imagination, making it a loose fit within the historical fiction category. Despite the literary freedoms with the original saga, the author does an excellent job describing what life was like in 10th century Iceland. This aspect of the book seems to be based on thorough research and credible historical evidence. The reader will undoubtedly get an almost "History Chanel" like picture of ancient Icelandic/Norse culture with all its mythology, traditions and rituals. In addition to the broad cultural overview, the book offers a really cool glimpse into all the details of day-to-day life of Icelandic chieftains, free men farmers, and slaves.
All the interesting historical stuff aside, I think that the story itself is actually the strongest element of this book. There is no central character per se, instead the narrative is focused on the conflict between two influential chieftains and all the secondary characters involved in this battle. Jeff Janoda does a very good job bringing all his characters to life, each with their own complex motivations, emotions, and strategies of accomplishing their goals. The story starts off a bit slow, as with most novels, but the drama starts to unfold in a very intricate and interesting way right around the 35-40 page mark. After that, I honestly couldn't put the book down and finished it off in just a few days.
My only criticism is that the names of two or three chapters in the book provide a dead give away of the final outcome of that particular chapter. It seems that the author/editor wanted it this way, in order to imitate the Sagas of old, however I thought this just ended up spoiling a few plot twists.
Despite the minor aforementioned blemish, this is a very nice book and a very strong first novel for Jeff Janoda. I certainly recommend it not only to those who are interested in the Norse culture and historical fiction, but for anyone who is looking for a good read.
on August 29, 2005
One of the most interesting things about SAGA is that it follows the story line of an old Norse tale. This gives the book a much different feel than a historical novel made out of a Hollywood plot and costumed characters. The novel feels ancient, otherworldly, Norse. For this to be a book worth reading, however, it must also function well as a novel, and doing both these things is a real achievement for Jeff Janoda. The novel does work well. The writing is clean, uncluttered, and focused on the story and characters. Certainly there are the scene and gear descriptions that every historical novel needs to re-create an ancient world, but thankfully, this is no plot smothering catalogue of tools and tent pegs. Rather, the book is taken up with following its many characters as they try to out maneuver each other without tearing the thin veil of civility covering Iceland. The intrigues, threats of violence, and of course violence, provide unrelenting suspense and surprise. Mr. Janoda has successfully brought an ancient story into the future by bringing us Vikings who are not screaming lunatics, but men.
on May 15, 2011
Interesting historical novel which provides a great deal of insight into how a wayward bunch of settlers on the edge of the earth carved out a society which managed the inevitable conflicts that arise when you put people together. The themes also force the reader to reflect on the nature of conflict in society and how grudges, particularly inherited ones, play such an important role. It also illustrates much of the nature of everyday life in medieval Iceland, including just how fragile survival was at that time. The depictions of daily life fall surprisingly short of painting a full picture though. For example, what did these people do all winter?
The story provides enough interest to hold your attention throughout. I'm no expert, but I believe it holds to the form of an Icelandic saga which is both a strength and a weakness: it captures the essence of that interesting story form, but that also means there's a certain sameness to the plot year after year. Action unfolds and conflict is resolved, but I don't think characters are supposed to grow in sagas, and they don't here.
I was looking for the flavor of an Icelandic saga with an opportunity to learn a bit about Icelandic history. This book did an excellent job of fulfilling those expectations.
on October 2, 2012
SAGA: A NOVEL OF MEDIEVAL ICELAND is a fascinating story, written by a very readable writer. Patience will be asked for as the story unfolds at a pace that allows the reader to fall gently, but certainly, into the setting - a primitive, hostile, and often dangerous land - and the stories of its people. Their longings for a place in their world, their desires, their angers, their hatreds, their loves, their lusts and above all, their fears, are magnified in their intense struggles with a life that can and often does end early and violently. If read with wisdom and patience, you may even discover something important about yourself in this wonderfully captivating story. In fact, what you and I can learn about ourselves, and those things that should be most important in life, may well be the most important, if unintended gift, of our reading Jeff Janoda's, SAGA: A NOVEL OF MEDIEVAL ICELAND.