Story: Makoto Yukimura
Art: Makoto Yukimura
Translation/Adaptation: Stephen Paul
What They Say
The foolish King Ethelred has fled, and Askeladd’s band is one of the hundreds plundering the English countryside. Yet victory brings no peace to the elderly Danish King Sweyn, who worries that his untested, sensitive son Canute will never be ready to take the throne. The king’s attempt to force his son to become a man places the young prince within the grasp of the gleeful killer Thorkell! Whoever holds Canute holds the key to the thrones of England and Denmark—and Askeladd has his own reasons for joining the fray!
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
Better put your goggles on, because I’m about to start gushing.
Askeladd’s mercenary band is marauding through England as part of King Sweyn’s invasion of the small island country. Although the Vikings have gained a substantial foothold in the country, it is still a dangerous place, made even moreso by Askeladd’s ambitions and the presence of Sweyn’s son, Canute, who is soft-spoken, Christian, and utterly useless in any kind of combat situation. Sweyn left Canute behind as he went on, and the prince becomes a huge walking target for everyone involved: the English, the Welsh, and a band of English mercenaries lead by the dementedly cheery Thorkell, a Viking working for the enemy because he enjoys the challenge of fighting his own people much more than he does fighting the English.
Even though it’s only two volumes strong, so far Vinland Saga has been an embarrassment of riches. The depth of detail Makoto Yukumura goes into portraying the life and culture of the Vikings is excellent and it’s matched by the strength of his plot and characters. What’s more, I can’t tell where this story is going, which makes it even more enjoyable seeing the plot unfold. Right now there are three different, but converging, plotlines occuring in this story: Thorfinn’s quest for revenge against Askeladd for the killing of his father; Askeladd’s goals, which are rather nebulous, but right now appear to be establishing himself as the new Kind of Wales; and Thorfinn’s sister, Ylva, coping with the death of her father and brother (she believes Thorfinn to have died with their father Thors), and taking on added responsibilities running the family farm. All three characters display different aspects of Viking culture and together tell a richly-nuanced tale full of love, heartache, adventure, and revenge.
Askeladd’s story in particular is fascinating and largely eclipses the other two. In the first volume he was established as the primary antagonist. Although charming and intelligent, Askeladd was also ruthless and cunning with no real discernable morality. You couldn’t help but love his character, but at the same time you also felt a little bad for doing so because of the terrible acts he and his men commit. In a way Askeladd exemplifies the problem with stories about Vikings: there are aspects of their life and culture that lend themselves so well to romanticizing, but underneath the romance lies a group of people that raped, pillaged, and murdered their way across the known world at that time. They were noble and terrible, brave and horrifying, and while they make for a fascinating subject, glossing over their worst qualities whitewashes an important facet of their culture and concomitantly forgives it.
In this volume, Askeladd’s character is developed in greater detail, and while he still stands as antagonist in relation to Thorfinn, I find him the most interesting character in the story. There’s an old saw in creating writing that every character believes that he is the hero in his own story, and in Askeladd’s case, it’s almost like that belief on his part is seeping out through the pages and coloring my perceptions. We learn in this volume that his mother was a Welsh woman captured by his Danish father, that Askeladd hates the Danes, and that he believes he is descended from Arturos, the Roman General that united the Britons and whose legend would later form the foundation of the King Arthur mythos. Askeladd hopes to use Prince Canute in a grand scheme to become King of Wales and take his rightful place as heir of Arturos. It’s an ambitious plan, to be sure, but the character has such charisma and ability that I almost believe he can do it.
What’s interesting about Askeladd’s character is that he has shifted my perception of the story. Going in with volume one I thought that this was going to be Thorfinn’s story. He served as the focal point for ninety percent of the volume and he possessed the kind of archetypal revenge/coming of age story potential of many protagonists. However, I find his story the least interesting right now and his character rather boring and one-dimensional. It could be that this is intentional as Thorfinn has a great deal of growing up left to do, but it does make me feel like he’s either sharing the spotlight with Askeladd and Ylva, or that he’s a supporting character with a slightly larger role than typical. It may very well be that there are three protagonists here, and either the first volume did not set that up very well or I came in with the wrong set of expectations. None of this, by the way, affects my enjoyment of the story or even stands as a negative to the manga: it’s just something that I noticed that I found interesting and wonder if anyone else experienced that too.
Moving on, out of the three characters mentioned, Ylva gets the least amount of page time, but when she does appear in the comic, she steals the show. There’s an energy to her that’s infectious, like watching the unstoppable force in the form of a small Viking girl. Ylva (and to a smaller extent, her mother) gives us a glimpse into the other side of Viking life, and the pain she feels over the loss of her father and brother—once she allows herself to feel it—makes for a powerful, emotional moment.
All of this is, of course, drawn wonderfully by Makoto Yukimura. He has a great style that straddles a fine line between photo-realism and cartoons. The expressions he creates for his characters are excellent, and he does large action scenes better than most of the manga artists I’ve read. Too often when reading manga I get lost in the level of detail in the work and have a difficult time understanding what I’m seeing. That doesn’t happen here. Everything is clean and clear as well as exciting and packed with character and emotion.
The only issue I have with this volume is that the color is different from the first volume. Volume one was blue whereas two is a light gray. It’s not a bad color, but considering that these are hardbound editions that use the same font and overall visual design, I wish that they had released this in the same color as well so it would create a uniform look on my bookshelf with the other volumes. It’s not a huge deal, but it is something that bothers me a bit.
Vinland Saga, Volume 2 is just as good as the first—perhaps even better. The level of historical detail Makoto Yukimura puts into each volume is very impressive and is matched in quality by the plot and characters as well as the art work. This is rapidly becoming one of my favorite mangas ever, and even though I wish the color of the packaging were the same as the previous volume, I still can’t recommend this title enough.
Content Grade: A+
Art Grade: A
Packaging Grade: B
Text/Translation Grade: A
Age Rating: 16+
Released By: Kodansha Comics
Release Date: January 21, 2014