This is a historical novel that I would like to hold up as a shining example of what I crave when I read historicals: I want to be immersed in the past, spending time with people that I on one hand understand, because of our shared humanity, but who on the other hand feel unfamiliar because their life’s experiences are so very different from my own. I want to see their world, live it, breathe it, try to understand it. I want to try and find the parts of that world that have survived until the present day without them being presented to me on a platter. I want to look at the ways their culture feels weird to me and I want to understand why it works like it does, without getting the feeling that it is ‘because the author said so’. I want it to feel real because the author did a lot of research without it ever feeling like I am reading research or that the author is showing off said research. I want the characters to be alive in a way that goes beyond them being marionettes in a world the author is busy showing off. I want it to have a story that doesn’t bore me by being loaded with era-appropriate clichés.
The Reluctant Berserker, despite having an awful title, is all that and on top of that it has a compelling story and it is beautifully written in a rich prose that stops just short of turning purple. Wulfstan and Leofgar are interesting, alien and human at the same time. One of the reasons I often find contemporary romances boring is that we all know how decent people ought to behave in our own world, there aren’t that many valid behavioral choices when a person is intrinsically good. So most characters in those books end up behaving exactly as you would expect them to eventually. The world in this book is so different, teetering between the ‘old’ Saxon warrior culture and the ‘new’ Christian morals, that the character’s valid choices are for the most part completely unpredictable for modern readers. This leaves readers in that pleasant state in which they have no clue where the story is going to go next or where it could possibly go in the end. It really is wonderfully done.
I’ll try to explain what started bugging me as the story progressed, though. One of the main themes in this book is that both men struggle with the fact that taking it up the ass is a) a mortal sin in the religious sense and b) a mortal insult for a warrior. Yet, that is what Wulfstan craves and what he is judged for harshly by everyone that finds out, including Leofgar. Wulfstan’s world is one where early Christianity dominates but where not all forms of paganism have been eradicated. It is a given that both characters, being Christian, have firm convictions. But then the author chooses to give both characters religious epiphanies that change how they view themselves, each other and the world around them. While I am not opposed to divine intervention in most fantasy novels (which usually have made up polytheistic religions) I am not a fan of it in that genre either. Here, I found it disturbing.
First of all, I don’t like that it is used to make the plot take a course that would have been almost impossible without it. It seems to be a very easy way to get the characters to change their mind and to get to an ending that is palatable for the modern reader. Secondly, I don’t buy that Wulfstan changes his opinions so radically after Saint Whatshername pretty much quotes Lady Gaga’s 'Born This Way' at him. Decades of social conditioning aren’t reversed so easily, I think.
And last, the whole ‘Hurray for the Church!’ vibe in the latter part of the book makes me profoundly uncomfortable. That’s probably projection on my part, being the child of fallen Catholics and all that, but I really don’t do well with totally uncritical views of any major religions. If you’re a practicing Christian you may love this part of the book though. And I am really curious how this book reads to non-Christians. Maybe this Disney version of Christianity is alien enough to them that they can view it from a benevolent distance, like I read my Fantasy novels. Or maybe it reads like propaganda. I don’t know. I am aware that it is more than likely that it’s my particular background that causes my discomfort in this case, but I’d really love to hear from other people how they experienced this latter part of the book.
For me this was a little bit like listening to a great song only to have it turn into a Praise Jesus type of Christian rock song in the last refrain. Arguably still a great song, but not something I would volunteer to listen to again.