Not the smartest thing to do, starting a post with a confession... but I was never good at dissembling, and so, even though it reveals that I've no idea what I'm talking about, I'll say it right away: I hardly ever read graphic novels. My husband has tried to lure me into liking them, so I have read my share of Conans etc., but I never really understood the appeal. Therefore, I surprised everyone – myself included – when I declared that I'd found a graphic novel I wanted to read.
It was Volume 1 in the Pakanat (“Pagans”) series by Tuomas Myllylä. I read the first book a few years ago, and the second late last year. And I was not disappointed. In fact, I've read the first volume twice now, and will certainly re-read the second one as well.
So why this sudden interest? It all started with the fact that the series is set in one of my favourite periods: Viking Age. And it gets better! Even though the adventure takes the reader on a journey to other locations, such as the Byzantine Empire and various places along the Varangian Way, the main setting is Viking Age Finland. There aren't many books with such a setting, or at least I haven't come across them. Viking Age counts as prehistory in Finland, and there are few sources (we rely mostly on archeological evidence), which is part of its fascination for me. We know something, and yet we know so little! It's a mystery... and for a writer, it is both a burden and a blessing. On one hand, you can do research, but it will only get you so far, for relatively little is known about those times. On the other hand... relatively little is known about that time. Which means you can use your imagination, you can make your own interpretations. One might even say that, to a certain degree, artistic license is a must.
It seems to me that Myllylä has done his research (but I'm no expert, just an enthusiast). Things like clothing, weapons, dwellings, seem to be about right for the period. So do the behavior of people, their values etc. There may be certain genre conventions at play here, and they are respected: the battles are gory, the men are merciless, the warriors are driven by their hunger for honour and revenge. Some of the characters are named after figures in Finnish mythology (Finnish national epic, “The Kalevala”). I don't know whether Myllylä simply turned to the epic to find names suitable for the period or whether this is his interpretation of (some of) the events and characters in “The Kalevala”. I suspect the latter, and I must say I like this rather down-to-earth interpretation.
The story itself is a classic tale of revenge. Yes, it's been done many times over, but it always works. I don't know what it says about human nature that we so readily accept vengeance as a powerful motivator, but I'm not here to discuss that, and anyway, this is Viking Age: avenging murdered loved ones was a question of honour. The first volume introduces the characters and contains quite a lot of backstory, but all of that is relevant information, and, more importantly, interesting. I want to avoid all spoilers here, so I'll say nothing about the plot, only that there are bloody battle scenes, a nice amount of humour, and plenty of plotting. While the story is fast-paced and action-packed, there are quieter moments when the characters sit in a sauna, thinking or talking. If you know anything about Finland and Finns, you know what a huge dose of realism that gives to the story. ;)
The artistic merits are beyond me to discuss (read: I don't know anything about these things and have virtually nothing to compare to, so who am I to talk?). But it seems to me that there is a certain grim grittiness to Myllylä's style (see the covers above, they'll give you some idea of what I'm trying to say), which I find a perfect fit for the story. The illustrations are very eloquent and have a unique feel to them. When the characters are in the sauna, you sense the heat; when they ski through a wintry forest, you shiver with cold. It's in the details: birds huddling on the branches; wind-blown hair; breath misting in the cold air.
The story doesn't end in volume two, which means there will probably be at least another book in the series. I'm definitely looking forward to reading it, and hoping that the story would continue even after that. Encouraged by this experience, I have even added a couple of other graphic novels to my TBR list!