Thursday, June 27, 2019

Review of The Hammer and the Cross by Harry Harrison and John Holm

If the exclamation points in the titles are not enough (Make Room! Make Room! and A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!), then it’s best to note that much of Harry Harrison’s early career is characterized by gonzo writing. From the cartoonish storytelling of the Deathworld series to the antics of the Stainless Steel Rat, Harrison didn’t often delve into the New Wave of science fiction happening at the same time as his rise to popularity. But his later years did soften him, including the Eden series, an odd trilogy of novels set on an Earth where not only did the dinosaurs survive, they developed sapient intelligence in parallel to humans. Harrison followed that series up with another major deviation from course, The Hammer & the Cross trilogy, co-authored with academic Tom Shippey (credited as John Holm). Likewise looking historically but rooting itself in more realistic soil, the series looks the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons in 9th century England, and the clash for power and religion happening then.

While on paper a trope (farmboy rises to power), The Hammer & the Cross (the eponymous first volume of the trilogy, 1993) has a strong backdrop to flesh out the familiar story. Set at a time in England when Viking raids were still happening, the book features Shef, an Anglo-Saxon blacksmith slave, who finds himself living among Vikings. Religions at odds as much as cultures, he sees directly the manner in which the two sides wreak havoc on one another. And he decides to get something from it.

From the word ‘go’, The Hammer & the Cross goes. Harrison and Shippey keeping the plot pedal to the metal, Shef’s adventures as blacksmith rarely slow down as he transitions his ‘career’ into something greater. Battles neither too technical nor overblown, they have a realistic simplicity that complements the nature of the story being told while keeping things grounded, not to mention do not allow the narratie to delve too deeply into the fundamental relationship between religion and culture. Those matters kept superficial, the authors leave readers to decide what to make of it.

If there are any issues with such an approahc, one would certainly be that pace and tone do not match the seriousness the author’s seem to want the narrative to be imbued with. Dramatic events occur, but without the proper staging (i.e. scene-setting is often pushed aside in favor of maintaining pace), they do not have the proper weight. The benefit is certainly narrative length (were such details to be included, the page count would grow by 50%), but compared with Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon novels, there is a comparative gravitas lacking that some readers may be looking for in such historical narratives.

In the end, The Hammer & the Cross is not a novel that will set the world on fire, but it is quite solid, and should be of interest for readers interested in a largely realistic rendering of Viking and Anglo-Saxon life in 9th century Europe with a slight alternate history twist. Harrison and Shippey never letting the details of the world bog their narrative down, the story moves at a steady clip, tracing lives in a way that balances pace, action, and realism competently, just not overly seriously.

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