The Raven’s Table: Viking fans, horror fans and gamers will find plenty to like

The Raven’s Table: Viking Stories by Christine MorganThe Raven’s Table: Viking Stories by Christine MorganThe Raven’s Table: Viking Stories by Christine Morgan

Christine Morgan’s work has appeared in various anthologies, such as History is Dead, a Zombie Anthology, and Uncommon Assassins. Her work is closely related to role-playing games and she is a dedicated gamer according to her website. The Raven’s Table: Viking Stories is a story collection of her Norse or Viking-themed works. The collection includes poetry, adventure, fantasy and horror in a couple of flavors. Five of the eighteen pieces are original to this collection.

Morgan’s work has its roots deeply in epic fantasy, and almost all of these tales are set during the Viking years. A couple take place in a locale that might be the Norse colonies in Labrador. Morgan’s language is right for an oral tradition, and several of the prose tales are augmented by her original poetry.

I was not the perfect audience for this collection. The Norse peoples and their habit of raiding and plundering everybody they could reach are not my fantasy favorites although I’ll admit they are interesting. Morgan successfully created a sense of a world (or worlds) and while The Raven’s Table wasn’t my usual kind of book I found several stories I enjoyed. I will review in more depth the ones that appealed to me, but if you are a big Norse fan, you should probably just get this collection, because the world-building, the prose, and the names will satisfy you.

These stories are not in any particular order and I will provide a table of contents at the end of the review.

“The Seven Ravens” is a Norse retelling of the European fairy tale “The Twelve Swans.” Ingihilde is the daughter of a strong queen and a good king. The king has been killed in battle, the queen died mysteriously, and Ingihilde’s seven brothers have been turned into ravens. Ingihilde swears to undo the spell. The brothers fly to an Althing of birds (a delightful bit) and learn of a dwarf who may know how to break the curse. The way Ingihilde tricks the deceitful, lecherous dwarf into giving her the information she needs is clever. She is a brave and smart character. The story follows traditional lines, and at the end the murderer of the queen and the truth of the old king’s death are revealed. I enjoyed the writing and the imagery here, and Ingihilde was a great character to spend time with.

“Brynja’s Beacon” almost read as a YA adventure to me, because of the youth of the protagonist and the simplicity of the story. Unn, a slave, is purchased and brought to the rich landholding of Skuthorpe, held by Lady Gethril while the lord Hrothgar is out raiding. Gethril is not Hrothgar’s wife, but his sister-in-law, and she bought Unn to be the caretaker for the elderly man she has sequestered in a shabby cabin away from the great hall. He is the grandfather of Hrothgar, and he is in disfavor. So are Hrothgar’s two children, and the rumors are that Hrothgar’s ship has sunk and he will not be back. Clearly the two children are in danger. The pleasure of this somewhat predictable plot is the growing relationship between Unn and the children, and Unn and the old man. The old man has a secret, there are trolls in the forest, and the great bonfire on the point of the headland, called Brynja’s Beacon, hasn’t been lit for months. You will anticipate almost everything that happens in this tale, right up to an implausibly happy ending for Unn, but it is still an enjoyable read.

“The Mottled Bear” also had the feel of a fairy tale, with a wicked queen who enchants the virtuous man who spurns her affections, and turns him into a bear. He grows more bearlike until he finds the human woman he loved in human form, and she, somehow, recognizes him. Despite an idyll in the forest, things are not fated to go well for a human woman and a bear even if the bear is a prince. The straightforward, slightly tragic tone of this story was a perfect match for the material, and parts of the story are intentionally heartbreaking as the enchanted animal-man goes unrecognized by those who love him.

“Thyf’s Tale” goes in another direction, in which evil-doing is rewarded. In a great hall, a king holds a feast. King Hodvard calls for a tale, a grim one, and a young skald shares the story of two friends, Guldi and Svarti. Guldi makes his reputation in war, but Svarti is a coward and their friendship ends. Guldi and Svarti both fall in love with the same woman, and Svarti pays a bag of gold to an assassin to kill his former friend with poison. The skald’s tale ends on a cold and fearsome note, and the warriors in the hall give in to their nervousness, peering into their drinking horns, wondering if poisoned herbs have been thrown into the fire, but the king laughs and gives the skald a bronze broach. That is not the end of the story. The poem of Guldi and Svarti is a lovely set-piece, and it is going to play out again. The who and the why are the important surprises in this short dark tale.

“With Honey Dripping” follows the “goat girl” of a community that worships fertility in the form of the goat-goddess Sib-Njurath. This is a version of the name Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods, a Lovecraft character. “With Honey Dripping” is pure erotica, with some strange transformations and lots of goats. This is a completely violence-free story, filled with several explicit erotic encounters. It was strange, but I like erotica sometimes and I liked this.

I liked “A Feast of Meat and Mead” because of the reversal at the end, and because of the sincere and innocent character of Osbert, the protagonist. Osbert has been raised Christian in the house of the Christian bishop, which has just survived an attack by the Danes. King Harald has paid off the Danes with gold and their ships are leaving, but Osbert, who sometimes sees beyond the veil of this world, says they will be back. In the aftermath of the battle, he does a kind deed for a dying Dane and then stands his ground before a Valkyrie. Impressed by his courage, the Valkyrie takes him to Valhalla, for he is as brave as a warrior. Osbert is baffled by the Norse idea of a warrior’s heaven: it’s all drinking and fighting, with no peace. Once again, Osbert clings to the courage of his convictions, and the story ends in a startling way. I did wonder if this was inspired in any way by the ninth century King Osberht of Northumbria.

“Aerkheim’s Horror” appeared in Cthulhu Fhtgan. Brother and sister, fraternal twins, guide a ship with a group of colonists to Vinland. There they encounter horrifying monsters from beneath the sea. Once again, Lovecraft fans will feel right at home. The use of color and mood here, to depict the black sea, the rushing waves, and the increasing sense of foreboding, is well done.

“Njord’s Daughter” uses alternating points of view and relies heavily on a twist ending. It’s a cautionary tale about obsessive love.

“Sven Bloodhair” follows the character of Sven, a bold and brutal warrior who cares only for his reputation as a fighter. Sven has the habit of dousing his head in blood, preferably human blood, before a battle, and if there isn’t a captured enemy around, a slave will do. One night Sven has a slave woman killed and drained, and then things start going wrong. It’s a nice twist on a familiar horror trope.

In “Nails of the Dead,” Morgan’s prose creates a grim, morbid atmosphere that permeates every page. Here’s an example:

I show it to her, the bag, brimming with nails of all sizes. She stirs through them with her own long, pale hand. The sound is a dry susurration that hisses and whispers, harsh utterances of loss, wistful sighs of the dead.

The story takes place partly in Niflheim, the land of the dead, presided over by Hel, goddess of the underworld, daughter of Loki, told from the point of view of one of her children, Nagl-Safne, the Nail-Taker. Despite the beautifully rendered atmosphere and its otherworldliness, “Nails of the Dead,” based on a Norse myth, was more of a powerful vignette than a story.

The contents are:

  • The Barrow-Maid
  • Thyf’s Tale
  • The Fate-Spinners
  • The Vulgarity of Giants
  • In the Forests of the Far Land
  • Njord’s Daughter
  • A Feast of Meat and Mead
  • Nails of the Dead
  • Sven Bloodhair
  • The Mottled Beat
  • To Fetter the Fenris-Wolf
  • At Ragnarok the Goddesses
  • With Honey Dripping
  • Aerkheim’s Horror
  • The Shield-Wall
  • The Seven Ravens
  • We Drown and Die
  • Brynja’s Beacon

Overall, while The Raven’s Table wasn’t a perfect match for me, I think Viking fans (the Norse ones, not the football team) gamers, and lovers of dark fantasy and mythic-style horror will find a lot to enjoy here.

Published February 28, 2017. Listen… The furious clangor of battle. The harrowing singing of steel. The desperate cries of wounded animals. The gasps of bleeding, dying men. The slow, deep breathing of terrible things–trolls, giants, draugr–waiting in the darkness. The wolf’s wind howling, stalking like death itself. The carrion-crows, avaricious and impatient, circling the battle-ground, the Raven’s Table. Listen… The skald’s voice, low, canting, weaving tales of fate and heroism, battle and revelry. Of gods and monsters, and of the women and men that stand against them. Of stormy Scandinavian skies and settlements upon strange continents. Of mead-hall victories, funeral pyres, dragon-prowed ships, and gold-laden tombs. Of Ragnarok. Of Valhalla. For a decade, author Christine Morgan’s Viking stories have delighted readers and critics alike, standing apart from the anthologies they appeared in. Now, Word Horde brings you The Raven’s Table, the first-ever collection of Christine Morgan’s Vikings, from “The Barrow-Maid” to “Aerkheim’s Horror” and beyond. These tales of adventure, fantasy, and horror will rouse your inner Viking.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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