A Mighty Dawn by Theodore Brun
Hakan, son of Haldan, chosen son of the Lord of the Northern Jutes, swears loyalty to his father in fire, in iron, and in blood. But there are always shadows that roam. When a terrible tragedy befalls Hakan’s household he is forced to leave his world behind. He must seek to pledge his sword to a new king. Nameless and alone, he embarks on a journey to escape the bonds of his past and fulfil his destiny as a great warrior.
Whispers of sinister forces in the north pull Hakan onwards to a kingdom plagued by mysterious and gruesome deaths. But does he have the strength to do battle with such dark foes? Or is death the only sane thing to seek in this world of blood and broken oaths?
When we first meet Hakan he is the same as many young men; self centered, self-important and entirely wrapped up in his own existence, he thinks the entire world revolves around him. He is about to go through the rite of passage that marks his transition to adulthood. Once he is a full blooded warrior he will be accepted as an equal and start his life as a member of the clan. Circumstance has different ideas however and a series of incidents set Hakan on an entirely different path. He is forced to leave behind everything and everyone he has ever known.
Thing I enjoyed most about A Mighty Dawn is the transformative element to Hakan’s story. The book is split into two quite distinct sections, and I think it is fair to say that his character goes through some significant changes as the narrative unfolds. So much so, in fact, that there is a moment where our lead changes his name, symbolically leaving his old life behind. Hakan is no more, it is Erlan that goes out into the world to find a place where he belongs.
During his journey, Erlan is joined by Kai, a cocksure teen. The two form a strong bond and as their relationship evolves they become more than friends, they become brothers. The dynamic between the two is one of the novel’s many highlights. You get the impression that Kai reminds Erlan of who he once was. He also helps to partially fill the familial void in Erlan’s life.
The eighth century was a dark time, and Theodore Brun does a fine job of capturing the hard lives that all the characters live. Struggle is a day to day occurrence and death can come quickly with little notice. There is a brutality to life that seems almost commonplace, but Brun still manages to include some genuinely unexpected moments that ratchet this feeling up by a factor of ten. There is a part of the novel that involves travelling through caves that is claustrophobic and sinister in the extreme.
Personally, I preferred the second half of the book over the first. Part one does do a good job of setting up the Hakan’s character, but it is part two where the tale really comes alive. Hakan’s transformation into Erlan is not in name alone. The plot keeps getting darker and darker, and I loved the uncertainty of it all. There are moments where things almost veer into the realms of horror.
The use of magic in the plot is left deliberately ambiguous. There are moments during Hakan/Erlan’s journey that could be viewed as either some sort of magical intervention or as a hallucination of some sort. The creatures that our hero ends up facing could be just twisted men and women who have grown up for generations separated from the rest of mankind, or they could be something far more otherworldly. I’ll be honest, my opinion on the matter kept flip-flopping, but I kind of liked that. It’s left to the reader to decide if magic was real or could just be viewed as something that was unexplainable in that time period. I’d imagine different readers will draw their own conclusions, exactly as it should be.
In a weird moment of cosmic synchronicity, last weekend I found myself at the Jorvik Viking Festival in York*. It seemed entirely apt as I was reading A Mighty Dawn at the time. While I was there, I happened to hear some of the music of Einar Selvik. He fronts a Norwegian band called Wardruna, who are dedicated to creating musical renditions of Norse cultural and esoteric traditions. I’m going to suggest that their album Ragnarok (I know perfect name isn’t it?) is just about the best thing you could listen to whilst you are completely engrossed in reading A Mighty Dawn. Calling this an atmospheric accompaniment doesn’t even come close to describing it.
A word of advice, the hardback version of A Mighty Dawn is a pretty hefty tome. If space in your bag is at a premium, or you suffer from poor wrist health, then I would opt for the electronic version. You can thank me later.
You might have already guessed, but I’ll confirm it now anyway; I really enjoyed A Mighty Dawn. As the title suggests this just a beginning. Theodore Brun has written a truly impressive debut that hints at a much larger story still left to be told. This novel has the potential to be an epic tale to rival the sagas of the ages. We’re only at the end of February/beginning of March and I may have already found one of my favourite books of 2017.
A Mighty Dawn is published by Corvus and is available from 2nd March.
*There were many beards, and a battle that was great fun (though sadly I was not allowed to directly participate. I just watched). I would heartily recommend attending future festivals.