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by Rebecca Silverman,

Vinland Saga

GN 1

Vinland Saga GN 1
Thorfinn is a young Viking from Iceland, unwilling part of the raider Askeladd's vicious crew. With his clear grudge against the captain of the band, it is obvious that Thorfinn has his own specific reasons for being on the crew, reasons that date back to his childhood in Iceland. But what are they? And how are they tied to Leif Erikson's tales of a mythical warm country to the west known as Vinland?

Hwaet! If you are a squeamish reader, beware. In the first 90-plus page chapter of Makoto Yukimura's multiple award winning manga Vinland Saga, more men get stabbed in the eye than you can reasonably count as the pure cruelty of medieval warfare is depicted. The story opens in media res, with a sixteen-year-old Viking boy named Thorfinn helping his captain, Askeladd, to take over a Frankish village. The walled community is being attacked by another French group, and Askeladd has a plan to use both sides against each other in order to make off with the riches. We quickly see that Thorfinn is a prickly youth, grim, glum, and with a lightening quick temper, and it's pretty obvious that he doesn't think much of Askeladd. The whys of that come clear as the book continues, moving us back in the third chapter to Thorfinn's childhood in Iceland, where the plot remains for the rest of the omnibus volume. The result is a book that plunges us deep into the crueler aspects of Viking culture, preparing the reader for what is to come even as Thorfinn's childhood offers a bit of a respite. But no matter how ideal his family life seems, we know that the specter of Askeladd looms, ready to turn the happy little boy into the hard young man we met when we first opened the book.

Canny readers may recognize the name “Askeladd” as a variation of the Northern European folk hero Askeladden, or “Ash Lad,” typically a male version of Cinderella. Given the amount of research that plainly went into Vinland Saga, it seems likely that Yukimura chose this name knowing its connotations, and this lends a potential dimension to a mostly unlikeable character. As this volume traces the evolution of Thorfinn from happy child to bitter teen, might not others show us how Askeladd became the cruel, mercenary man he is when we meet him? In any event, Askeladd's design is one of the most memorable, not so much for anything innovative as for the perpetual smirk on his face. He practically oozes underhanded nastiness without being drawn as an exaggerated farce of a man, like the Frankish lord in the first chapter. There is nothing but his expression to distinguish him from the other bearded Viking men, and somehow that makes him all the more frightening.

While Thorfinn is ostensibly the hero of the piece, most of the character work is done in the past by his father, Thors. Since Thors' fate is central to who Thorfinn will become, this makes sense, although some readers may be off-put by the backwards time skip after the heat of the Frankish battle. The past also introduces both famed Viking explorer Leif Erikson and the concept of Vinland, Erikson's name for the warm land across the sea. Presumably both Erikson and Vinland will play a larger role once the story gets off its feet. Hopefully this will also allow for the inclusion of more female characters, as at this point the useful cast is largely male. While this may seem a nonsensical complaint for a manga set in the Medieval period, but there are records of Viking women doing more than housework, including Erikson's own sister Freydis, who is said to have sailed to Vinland herself, and Danish pirate Alfhildr. There certainly is potential for Thorfinn's sister Ylva, as well as the enslaved Norwegian noblewoman he meets before the flashback.

Kodansha USA's omnibus volume contains books one and two of the original Japanese edition, including all of the end matter, such as four panel strips and author commentary. The book is hardcover, and the binding is a bit different from the average manga volume with a shiny library-style binding that honestly gives the book a bit of a “kiddy” look. Do not be fooled, however – Yukimura spares very little gruesome detail. Bodies are cut and scarred, the cruelty of slavery is shown, and all in all this is a fairly faithful rendition of Medieval times. If the art style has elements of the generic, it is easy to overlook as soon as you get caught up in the story.

Vinland Saga is, on the whole, a deeply engrossing book. Part shounen adventure, part historical drama, it strives to explain the past while allowing its readers to live it. Yukimura doesn't skimp on details and his character designs, although somewhat generic, allow the essence of the characters' personalities to shine through. If you have any interest at all in Vikings, the Medieval period, or pirates, this is not a series you want to miss.

Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+

+ Pulls you in and holds your interest, even when we move to the past. Excellent period detail, character designs show us the characters' inner selves through body language.
For all that, the art is a bit generic shounen, not really any interesting female characters so far. Flashback feels too long at times.

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Production Info:
Story & Art: Makoto Yukimura
Licensed by: Kodansha Comics

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Vinland Saga (manga)

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