Althingi: The Crescent and the Northern Star
Jim Gillingham & Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad
Althingi: The Crescent and the Northern Star is one of the most original, creative and engaging anthology that I have ever come across in my entire career as a book reviewer – and that’s regardless of genre. When I made contact with Outland Entertainment, I’ll admit that I was most interested in taking a look at some of their back catalogue titles, especially the Kaiju Rising duology of anthologies; I have a distinct weak spot for giant monsters fighting each other, or humanity’s desperately-marshalled armed forces, and was looking forward to reviewing them on detail. But when I saw the list of upcoming titles due to be published by Outland Entertainment, my eye was drawn to one title in particular: I had no idea what ‘Althingi’ meant but it sounded intriguing, and so did the combination of the Crescent and the Northern Star. The striking cover art – a combination of monochrome character portraits with splashes of dark red on their clothing – drew me in further; and then my interest was sealed by the back-cover blurb. Because this informed me that this collection of short stories focused on the often-unknown connections between Vikings and representatives of the powerful Islamic kingdoms in North Africa and the Middle East, amongst others. It sounded genuinely intriguing, the sort of anthology that I never would have dreamt could have ever been written, let along a copy coming my way, and so I couldn’t wait to see what it had in store for me.
The collection holds fourteen stories in total, and starts with Speaking with Giants by Linnea Hartsuyker. In ancient Baghdad, Vidar – somewhere between a slave and a compatriot – tends to a dying Rashid, a man who had once taken the Norseman into slavery, but then turned their relationship into something akin to friendship as time passed. Determined not to become a slave once again to Rashid’s relatives, Vidar instead decides to travel to the new land of Iceland mentioned by his former master, where giants are said to roam. Much of the story consists of intriguing backstory explaining how the two men came to meet on the shores of Kyiv, the Norseman saving the life of Rashid’s young daughter and subsequently joining his retinue. Their personal relationship develops slowly but deftly, and there are also some fascinating insights into the similarities between Norse and Islamic apocalyptic mythology. It’s a slow-paced, character-driven and surprisingly emotional tale, one of the best in the anthology, as well as a fantastic way to start the collection. It’s followed by The Blasphemy of the Gods, by Sami Shah, and you know a story is going to be good when the narrator swears a solemn oath that they are speaking the truth. What follows is the account of a trusted ambassador of the Caliph, as he is dispatched to accompany a Norse advisor to the Caliph to the titular Althingi – or Parliament – and observe both the social gathering itself, and the advisor as he inherits a parcel of land. After a fraught and perilous journey through eastern and northern Europe, the two men arrive at the Althingi, only for the ambassador to become enmeshed in the bloody and hellish – rather literally – murder of a fellow diplomat. There’s some amusing characterization and well-written interplay between the protagonist and the Norseman as the tale progresses, as well as some well-portrayed culture clash as the educated and debonair ambassador encounters the strange customs of the Norse and their inhospitable environment; and the murder that the ambassador is blamed for is cleverly rooted both in Norse mythology, and the clash of religions occurring at the time. Genevieve Gornichec then gives us The Short Tale of Thurid the Exasperated, a darkly amusing tale of Thurid, loyal and long-suffering wife to her likeable but foolish husband Eystein, a man who seemingly tries his best but somehow always come out the worst in whatever challenge he embroiled himself in. Now locked into a duel to the death with a Viking nicknamed ‘the dueler’ because the man called Eystein a liar for talking about being shipwrecked in al-Andalus, the fate of Thurid’s husband relies on digging up a chest of Arabic silver. The catch? Eystein can’t remember where he buried it all those years ago. Gornichec provides a perfectly-executed slice of darkly comic prose that helps lighten the overall tone of the collection, and proves that its concept lends itself to humour as well as pathos. Torunn Unhoused by Emily Osborne follows a Torunn, an Icelandic woman travelling during late May as part of a custom relating to travelling between old and new homes: hence the ‘unhoused’ part of the title. Her cowardly husband dead and her farm razed, Torunn has no choice but to seek refuge at her brother-in-law’s farm, though he is as villainous as his deceased brother. During her journey, an unexpected encounter with a strange woman leads to a sudden new life on an abandoned farm; but hard work and contentment are just as unexpectedly disrupted by strange noises on the farm’s roof, and rocks being hurled. It soon becomes apparent that her new friend hides secrets that may be Torunn’s undoing. Some poetic prose and fascinating insights into ancient Icelandic culture, especially around the rights of women, and concepts of libel, make this an especially memorable tale.
The amusingly named What a Miserable Drink, and What a Terrible Place is by Alex Kreis, and features another Islamic ambassador – though this time working on behalf of the Master of the Barid, who commanded the messengers moving between the cities of the Abbasid Dynasty. Sallam the Interpreter has been sent to the King of the Bulgars to deliver a message; and when the message proves to be less than stellar, Sallam is forced to journey through the frozen wastes to witness something terrifying. If that was not bad enough, he must then deal with deadly diplomatic intrigue and solve a gruesome murder. It’s another fascinating look at the links between two distant empires and features some great characterization and worldbuilding in terms of the many other powers jostling for influence in the region. The Saga of Aud the Seeress is by Siobhán Clark and gives us a tale in the style of a Nordic saga, following the story of a powerful warrior and his seeress daughter during a period of Icelandic history before all the smaller kingdoms were unified under a single ruler. It’s a slow-paced story but very well-told all the same, with some interesting characterization, and Clark manages to capture the same energy and style as other epic historical sagas I’ve come across before, as familial ruin turns into vengeance. Dragoslava Dreadkeel by Giti Chandra follows a young princess as she flees from those who brutally killed her family. Hoping to travel to Constantinople and the dubious safety of a distant cousin, Dragoslava is befriended by an Arabic emissary. They them find themselves embarking on a journey that is simultaneously filled with intellectual wonders and philosophical curiosities, and imminent danger from cultural and religious bigotry all around them. A thrilling and rather clever narrative that sees science and intellect triumph (albeit barely) over superstition makes this another memorable story in the collection.
Moving towards the latter half of the collection, The Gold of Iskander by Nicholas Kotar has a rather unique basis for its tale: it’s a lightly fictionalized version of the legend of Prince Oleg of Kiev, the legendary leader of a vast fleet of Rus ships that ransacked parts of Persia, only to be betrayed at the height of their success. In the story, Yaropolk is a young man of the Eastern Rus, living on the border with the Khazar, and resigned to a life of back breaking work in the wheat fields. But when word comes of the Army Prince Oleg is raising to find the fabled Gold of Iskander, Yaropolk sees an opportunity to abandon his humble background and become part of a legend. However, initial successes and a sense of romanticism soon turn to fear and even disillusionment, particularly after Yaropolk encounters a mysterious hermit during the army’s endless march. A powerful and oddly moving story at times, and a great retelling of an intriguing piece of mythology that has a genuinely shocking ending that stayed with me for quite some time. Wave Runners is from Kaitlin Felix and focuses on Gyda, captain of the ship Sea-Wolf and a small, hand-picked female crew her equal in cunning and ferocity. Running cargo to al-Andalus that could make her career along with her crew, as long as she can fend off the potentially lethal anger of her male rivals, Gyda finds herself with a stowaway in the hold of the Sea-Wolf. He brings terrible news that threatens to destroy her livelihood – and possibly even her life and those of her crew; but also potential opportunity, if only the gods will give Gyda the chance. Then comes Exiles by Shanon Sinn, which is a fast-paced and atmospheric tale of a small village of exiles attempting to survive, and hopefully even thrive, in the midst of hostile rival villages and clan leaders who are not above ambushes and murders to get their own way. Trusting only in themselves and their fearsome reputation, the exiles throw everything they have into one immensely ambitious plan in an desperate attempt to finally gain legitimacy and power amongst their many rivals. It’s a brilliant tale really well told, with some brutal and visceral fight scenes, and as such I’m curious to see what else Sinn has written.
A quartet of stories make up the last quarter of the collection, starting with a Clash in Kaupang by Eric Schumacher. Trader Sten and his crew sail into the trading port of Kaupang in Norway, looking to trade briskly and make a decent profit to make up for a slow summer of trading. But while Sten initially finds hope in a new relationship with a rich trader, political machinations and regicide suddenly lead to Kaupang having a new master – one likely to deprive Sten of both his trading goods and possibly even his life. But even in captivity there’s the possibility for advancement if one is bold enough. A good story, and providing some much-needed context to trading relations both internally and externally with trading partners as far as the Middle East. Sif the Fair by Jordan Stratford looks at the story of an exiled trader returning to a distant trading port in through hopes of winning the heart of the woman he has fallen in love with – the titular Sif, who rules the port. It’s a short tale, the shortest in the collection, but it has a certain air to it that makes it memorable all the same. R.F Dunham provides the penultimate story, Sky of Bronze, another highlight of the entire collection that focuses on two fathers on a journey, and their individual and incredibly different attitudes towards faith. The two men – Vlad the Northman and Zoskales the Muslim – accompany each other on the sacred hajj, each with their own reasons for undertaking such a journey at this particular point in their lives. Both have been rejected, by their community or their own flesh and blood, and are also fathers grieving in their own, unique ways. Two utterly different souls who should never have come within a thousand miles of each other, yet brought together here in an uneasy partnership for a shared goal. To say more would be to spoil an absolutely fantastic story, a fraught and emotionally-charged journey through the nature of belief and faith that made me feel genuine emotions, something pretty rare for a jaded reviewer like myself, and as a result firmly putting Dunham on my radar for future reviewing. The final tale is So Do I Write And Color The Runes by Bjarne Benjaminsen, and is perhaps a fitting end to the collection, it being a curiously philosophical and at times even metatextual story that works its way through a variety of philosophical discussions and treatises; while I fear that I didn’t comprehend even half of the subtleties and nuances to be found in the story, I still found myself enjoying it, basking in the differing concepts found within it.
As the length of this review might have indicated, I cannot recommend Althingi: The Crescent and the Northern Star strongly enough to everyone who reads this blog – and indeed will be doing the same to anyone else I talk to about book recommendations. I cannot remember the last time that I enjoyed an anthology so much, and learnt so much about different cultures and time periods at the same time as reading fascinating, high-quality historical fiction. Althingi is a refreshingly different and unique approach to historical fiction, casting much-needed light on cultures, countries and religions that I would very likely never have learnt about otherwise. As a result of finishing the book, I’m also highly intrigued by the Althingi game that the anthology has been commissioned to accompany, and look forward to seeing if I can grab a copy in the near future. Althingi: The Crescent and the Northern Star is, quite frankly, an utterly brilliant collaboration between editors Jim Gillingham & Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad and publishers Outland Entertainment, and will firmly be in my top ten anthologies – and likely even top ten books – reviewed in 2021. As a result, I now have a new publisher and a crop of new authors on my reviewing radar, and I cannot wait to see what Outland Entertainment come up with next. Whatever it is, you can guarantee I’ll be watching closely.