Vinland Saga Vol 1

Vinland Saga, Vol 1 by Makoto Yukimura

This is a manga that I think of as having mirage-like qualities. I never thought it would actually be released in the US, just because I assumed a 13+ volume series about vikings would be a bit of a hard sell, despite the almost universal acclaim that Planetes Yukimura’s other English-translated series received. Furthermore the fact that the first volume of this series vanished from amazon (it is still available in kindle format) made it seem all the more hard to get. Fortunately I was able to brave the wilderness of an actual brick and mortar bookstore (isn’t it good these are still around) and track down this volume.

Releasing series that might be slightly less commercial in an omnibus deluxe format seems like a smart move. This hardcover volume features color pages, author notes, and a bonus story, so the higher price point still feels like a bargain. Vinland Saga certainly lives up to its title, as the first two volumes set up a sweeping tale of adventure, simmering revenge, daring battles, amusing cynicism, and manly men being almost too awesomely manly. The story opens mid-battle, as the Viking commander Askeladd observes a battle between Frankish tribes and is determined to enter the battle as a third party and make off with all the spoils of war. Askeladd sends out a pathologically surly young boy to be his messenger, but Thorfinn demands a reward before agreeing to undertake his task. Askeladd knows what Thorfinn wants and promises him his reward if he brings back the head of the commander of the opposing forces.

Bringing back someone’s head might seem like a bit too much of a burden for a young man, but Thorfinn capably negotiates with the frog-like Frankish leader, climbs the walls of the besieged castle, beheads his target, loses the head, retrieves it, then heads back to his companions to demand his reward – a duel with Askeladd. Thorfinn has been raised by Vikings who killed his father, and as he’s grown older and more capable his desire for revenge has increased as well. The battle scenes in Vinland Saga are dynamic and detailed, and it is hard not to root for Askeladd due to his innovative battle tactics and glee in his victories. If this manga only focused on battles, I could see it becoming less interesting, but Yukimura spends just as much time showing the reader the family life of the men who go out to plunder and raid.

An extended flashback throws Thorfinn’s current life in sharp contrast, as the reader sees the peaceful village where he was raised, and the father who he wishes to avenge. While Thorfinn’s family was removed from violence in the past, his father’s legendary martial prowess results in old enemies seeking him out, and Thorfinn’s innocent desire for adventure ends up leading him to experience loss at a very young age. Yukimura’s realistic and detailed style grounds the story effectively, with all of the background elements such as dwellings, ships, and clothing having the well-researched feeling that just allows a reader to slip into enjoying the story easily. While there’s plenty of adventure and action in Vinland Saga what stands out to me more are the human elements that Yukimura focuses on so well. Seeing the world weary desire for peace shown by Thorfinn’s father does more to ground the character than showing all of his past battles. Leif Erikson shows up as a storyteller who enjoys talking about himself far too much. Thorfinn’s sister is hilariously indifferent to the attentions of the village boys, and Thorfinn’s gentle mother is shown with murder in her eyes when she sees her husband not paying enough attention to her newborn daughter. I’m very much looking forward to the next volume of this series.

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