Book Review: Who’s Afraid of Beowulf by Tom Holt

This book follows an archeologist from Long Island as she travels to Scotland to investigate a recently-discovered Viking ship buried beneath the earth. She feels a strange compulsion toward the ship and its artifacts and soon discovers that the ship contains living residents—1200-year-old residents—who have been preserved to continue the epic battle of good versus evil against the evil sorcerer-king (who has also been around for a while).

The book achieves subtle humor with its matter-of-fact treatment of the events. The warriors awaken from the ruins, realize it’s been 1200 years, and continue on about their day. They accept things fairly easily, likening our technology to the magic they had in their day (which they bring with them in their quest). The sorcerer-king’s modern black tower (a skyscraper) is likened to a castle. There are also two chthonic spirits (Zxerp and Prexz) whose “magic” meshes quite well with the modern electrical grid. In one instance they eat an electronic message. There’s a shapeshifter, magic that turns riffles into daffodils, and a wizard that can translate languages.

Fans of Beowulf and its related history will enjoy this book: there are numerous allusions to the epic tale and related mythology (mention of the whale-road, for example, as well as referring to the 14-passenger van needed to transport the Viking warriors around Scotland as “Sleipnir” after Odin’s warhorse). Those with no background might feel a bit lost at times.

I found the story compelling. My only criticism is the same criticism I have for pieces with dry humor. I have to be in the right mood to appreciate dry or matter-of-fact humor. I can’t be in a bored, tired, or angry mood when reading it. As a result, it took me longer than usual to read this book (I had to wait until I was in the right mindset). The other thing that troubled me was the largely omniscient point of view—the story skipped quickly from one group of people to the next, allowing us an almost omniscient understanding of what was happening to each character and when. To me, though, this made it difficult to stick with just one character and keep track of all the nuances involved. Maybe slowing the pace a bit and sticking with one character for longer would have made me relate a bit more.

Still, it was an enjoyable read. I liked the references to Viking culture and the humorous way the Vikings interact in our world. My favorite scene is when the warriors hole up in a castle and are surrounded by armed policemen. They are excited for a battle and are disappointed to see that each warrior will only have to kill one policeman to win the fight. They Vikings throw javelins at the officers, intentionally missing as a (failed) way of tempting the officers into battle. Shortly after, another group is in a museum trying to retrieve an artifact (that belongs to one of the warriors). They are forced to listen to a tour guide blatantly misinterpret elements of their artifact, and their reaction is quite enjoyable!

I would recommend the book for people who like adventure books and history. If you’ve never read Beowulf or studied Viking culture, you will miss out on a lot of what makes this book a rich read.