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Vinland Saga Vol. #04 Hardcover Manga Review

5 min read

Vinland Saga Volume 4 CoverA tale of fathers and the monsters they make.

Creative Staff
Story/Art: Makoto Yukimura
Translation/Adaptation: Stephan Paul
Letters: Scott O. Brown

What They Say
Pushed to the brink of despair after his father attempted to have him killed, Prince Canute has experienced an awakening, transforming him from a timid, gentle boy into a clear-eyed man with the heart of a king. But a king needs a crown, and Canute now knows that nothing will be given to him. If he wants to rule, he will have to prove his ruthlessness with a plot that will change the fate of the kingdom and spatter the throne with blood! Meanwhile, Thorfinn watches events unfold that could steal way the vengeance he has waited so long to achieve.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
Prince Canute, the despised and thrown away prince, returns to his father. Where once he was timid, kind, and gentle to a fault, he now stands a ruthless politician with aspriations of ruling the Danes. However, he is still very much a boy, with no practical experience leading warriors or navigating the minefield of politics, but thankfully, he has Askeladd at his side, Thorkell at his front, and Thorfinn in his shadow. Together, the three plot to overthrow Canute’s father and place the prince on the throne. Askeladd does this in order to be named King of Wales, Thorkell because of the promise of more fighting, and Thorfinn because of his pathological need to keep Askeladd alive so he can enact his revenge. Unfortunately, Thorfinn may once again learn that what we get is rarely what we want.

In many ways Prince Canute’s transformation from child to man is a tragedy, and that seems to be the premise of this series. While there is beauty in Nordic culture, there is also a deep vein of violence and despair, and time and again we see how it shapes—even deforms—men. Thors, Thorfinn’s father, was once a mighty Jomsviking, but he ran away to escape the cycle of death and violence. He found that he didn’t run fast enough, and died in battle. His cousin, Thorkell, revels in the blood and thunder of the battlefield to the point where that’s all he is. He’s almost a caricature of a Viking, and his inability to understand a life outside of war is sad. Thorfinn has spent the majority of his life seeking revenge, twisting himself into a bitter weapon of violence and becoming that which he hates the most.

And then there’s Askeladd.

Pieces of his story have been peppered throughout the first three volumes. We learn that his father was a Viking raider who stole his mother—a Welsh woman—and made her into a slave and concubine. We learn that he identifies with his mother’s people far more than he does his father’s, to the point where he claims to hate Vikings. And now we learn the rest of his story. The tale is far too good to recount here and spoil it, but the depths of the man’s hate and the scope of his tactical genius and patience are breathtaking, solidifying his place as my favorite character in this story.

I am going to get into spoiler country now, because there’s no way for me to make my next point without addressing this particular plot point, so if you want to come to this volume cold, I would recommend skipping the next paragraph.

One of the issues I’ve had with this work is that I identify and like Askeladd far more than I do the protagonist, Thorfinn. Askeladd is a more interesting character and he’s far more charismatic, and this is a bit problematic in that he was initially introduced as an antagonist. As the story has progressed, I learned that the depth of the characters and the care put into the story necessitated me reconfiguring how I approached the manga. The characters are far too developed to simply fall into the classic “hero” and “villain” roles I was initially placing them in, and that is one of the reasons why I love this manga so much. The characters are brilliant. Still, this is Thorfinn’s story, and for 90% of the story I was on Askeladd’s side. He was too big and brilliant not to draw my attention. This issue gets resolved in this volume as Askeladd dies in his final move against the King. It was an epic scene worthy of such a great character, and it recenters the story on Thorfinn. Askeladd’s life and death now serve as important influences on Thorfinn’s story, and the boy is once again changed because of this terrible, amazing person. I have to say that as much as I love his character and will miss him, this was the right move to make as otherwise this would have been a manga with an unintentional second protagonist stealing the focus from the intended main character.

This all comes back to the central premise. Askeladd has been something of a second father to Thorfinn—although the boy would never admit it—and has in many ways helped shape him into the sad, empty young man he has become. However (and this is where the nuance is so important), he has also tried to steer the boy to a different path. Unfortunately, the boy is too stubborn, and Askeladd’s approach is too harsh for the message to get through. Vinland Saga presents us with generations of men who have had their lives deformed by these cycles of death and violence, and who will never escape it because there is nowhere to escape to.

At least for now. Leif Erikson’s Vinland looms on the horizon, and it might well be that this is all leading up to that moment where Thorfinn sets foot on this new and different land where he can make a life for himself outside of this poisonous culture. He may even raise a son and teach him a new way of life. Time will tell.

In Summary
The world of the Vikings was a dangerous one, and Yukimura captures that sense of danger and uncertainty incredibly well. No one is safe and nothing stays the same, and this sense of uncertainty coupled with the quality of the writing and art make this a masterful work of literature. If you’ve read my reviews then you know I’m typically positive. There are times when I worry that I’m not being critical enough and that I’m throwing around superlatives too often. I never worry about that when I write about Vinland Saga. This is a masterful work that I have been delighted with since the get-go. Highly recommended.

Content Grade:  A+
Art Grade:  A+
Packaging Grade: A
Text/Translation Grade: A

Age Rating: 16+
Released By: Kodansha Comics
Release Date: July 29th, 2014
MSRP: $19.99