SPFBO6 FINALIST: Darkness Forged by Matt Larkin

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Darkness Forged by Matt Larkin

I began Darkness Forged by Matt Larkin thinking it was a Norse-inspired novel. After a few pages I was convinced this was as Norse a book as you could get without actually putting Odin, Huginn and Muninn through a blender and using them as ink.  I’ll confess, I finished this book without realising it was actually a retelling of a Norse saga, the Völundarkviða, or Volund’s Poem. Now that I understand that, it explains a lot.

The novel tells the story of three brothers married to Valkyries. After a hunt, they return home to find their wives have vanished without a trace. There is no sign of struggle, no damage to their home, their wives are just gone leaving behind a child. The three brothers each have a wedding band through which they can feel the bond with their wives, and from this each are drawn in a different direction to try and follow them and find out what the hell is going on.

Volund heads north through mists that drive most men mad, Slagfrid heads for distant islands steeped in ancient magics, and Agilaz finds himself embroiled in a struggle against foreign raiders.

From the outset this book reads very differently to other fantasy books that I’ve read. I suspect Larkin has tried hard to stick to the tone of the original poem, and it shows. The pacing feels a little rushed at times, a little stilted at others, but that’s probably down to the structure of the story this is all based upon.

The clearest story and character in this book is Volund, the youngest of the three brothers. Given that it derives from the Völundarkviða that shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Volund has a brutal back story detailing his apprenticeship with the dverga (dwarves), during which he himself was broken and tempered as a means of becoming a master smith.

The dvergar are an interesting race who are really quite different to a modern interpretation of dwarves.  Larkin did a great job, and I really enjoyed the descriptions of them, their beliefs, and their way of life. It’s the little things that really shone here. The fact that they do not understand the notion of romantic love, that they hate and fear sunlight, and their otherworldly, almost parasitic true forms.

I have to say I never really connected with any of the characters in this book, and I’m wondering if this is because of the root of this story. In tale derived from an oral tradition the plot is almost like bullet points. With stories passed through generations, it would be hard to remember the little details. During a recounting of this tale, it would be up to the listener to fill in the blanks. I’m taking a few liberties since I’ve never read Volund’s Poem, but in only 41 stanzas it couldn’t have been that long.

That said, this is a retelling and Larkin did have the luxury of filling in some of these blanks if he’d chosen to. The story could have been filled out more. Volund, and definitely his brothers, could have been fleshed out a little. The book would have really benefitted from expansion into the brother’s backstory and some wider worldbuilding. I think this would have helped with some of the pacing issues.  Another issue I’m struggling with is that I genuinely have no idea how much of this story is original. Where does Volund’s Poem end and Larkin’s writing begin? I know that the major plot points in the story are all present in the original Norse saga but I’m undecided over how much this matters.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a good story but if you’re looking for a fantasy novel that is inspired by a Norse saga then this probably isn’t for you. This is very much a retelling, and if read with that in mind, it’s an enjoyable read.

SPFBO score 6/10

This was Kitty G’s pick for her finalist and I was excited to get into another Norse book because I had just come off of Gathering of Ravens that I enjoyed a lot – and I just don’t hit a bunch of Norse related books for whatever reason. 

This is not loosely Norse based, no, this is Norse concentrate. There are dvergar, scortalfar, varulf, liosalfer, and direwolves…Valkyries, sorcerers, krakens, northern raiders, and magic runes … there’s an assload of other heavily Norse inspired world building as well. Google was a useful tool when I was reading this book – for others more familiar with Norse myths and culture maybe this wouldn’t require quite the amount of researching it did for me. The dialogue kept in tone with the rest of the book, it felt very old school: “Many though, house vaettir, beings of spirit keen to prey on men foolish enough to draw nigh.”  It wasn’t so overdone that it slowed down my reading which is a pet peeve of mine, I actually sailed right through this book in one sitting. 

So the focus of this story is on three brothers. They’re married to Valkyries and one day on the return home from a hunt they find that their wives up and left. It doesn’t look like it was involuntary, nothing’s wrecked, there’s no sign of a fight, and a kid is left behind.  The brothers each have a ring that binds them to their wives in a way that allows them to sense what direction they went. It turns out they each went in a different direction – and so each brother heads out on his own to go and try to find his wife. They agree to meet back at their home village in one year’s time. The youngest brother heads up North through the poisoned mists that turn men mad. Agilaz is helping fend off raiders, and Slagfrid has headed to islands known for ancient magics. 

The youngest brother, Volund, is definitely the most tragic character, IMHO. He’s got a seriously fucked up back story and he was essentially tortured by dwarves when he was an apprentice. They viewed him the same as they view ore, something to be beaten, hammered, and forged into something new. His two years with the dwarves was downright brutal, they don’t believe in romantic love, they don’t believe in affection, hubris, or pride…. if they feel you’re showing any of those emotions there are punishments dolled out that would kill most. Volund got the most page time, I think, at least it felt like he did. So, I definitely connected with Volund’s story the most, but Agilaz and Slagfrid definitely have their own troubles and obstacles. Agilaz is the most serious and stern brother… while Slagfrid “jokes” about how they should all swap wives for a night. 

The whole world had a dark outlook, with mists that drive you insane to wars that never seem to end, to cursed swords, people coming back from the dead if they aren’t burned. The whole thing was grim from beginning to end. The highlight for me was definitely the world building, the atmosphere, tone, and general visuals were great. I can’t say that I ever really attached to any of the characters, but that’s not through fault of the authors ability to build a character. I felt like all three brothers were distinct, had their own motivations and depth, they just weren’t my kind of characters. If anything I think the weak point would be the plotting, it felt very sequential “first this, then that” kind of storytelling, but it sort of worked since this felt like a myth or a legend that got expanded into a full length novel. Those sorts of stories tend to be more straight forward. It also helped speed the story along, like I mentioned earlier I was able to read this in a day. There was no meandering in the plot, everything that was said was necessary to the story. I can see this having a TON of appeal to most fantasy readers, especially those who love detailed Midgard worldbuilding. 

Ratings: 

  • Plot: 10/15
  • Characters: 10/15
  • World Building: 13/15
  • Writing: 12/15
  • Pacing: 12/15
  • Originality: 11/15
  • Personal Enjoyment: 5/10 

Final Score: 73/100  

Kristen: Darkness Forged is a Norse inspired tale of three brothers (half-brothers, really), Slagfid, Agilaz, and Volund. All three are married to Valkyries, and their wives all up and left them one day due to uh… being Valkyries. So they’re off on a mission to find them, each to a different place, using rings that let them know which direction their wives went.

Volund got the most focus here, as we get more of his backstory than the others. Volund was sent to apprentice with the dvergar (dwarves), masters of smithing. It was not happy smiles times with the dvergar. Part of his training was, more or less ensuring he was up for the task, and that is apparently achieved by repeatedly torturing him. Volund has always felt that he has a darkness inside of him that he has kept inside even despite what the dvergar put him through, but as he does worse and worse things in his quest to find his wife, it changes him, freeing that darkness, making him… hmm something else…

Volund ends up in a kingdom to the north where he agrees to make a sword for a king, only to be tricked into becoming the king’s slave. Agilaz and his son go to a different kingdom and fight for the jarl there. Slagfid ends up on an island, saved from drowning by a warrior princess and vows to repay her by killing nine of her enemies.

Darkness Forged was quite short and I read it in a couple of evenings. It is quite dark, as you’d imagine given the name. There is rape and mutilation, but the details are thankfully off-page. Don’t worry though grimdark fans, there is still plenty of grimdarkness on-page. 

All told, it was a solid read, but it wasn’t my favorite. I ultimately had a tough time really empathizing with any of the characters, especially Volund (who is unlikable, but for obvious reasons). That said, it’s a quick read, and it is full to the brim of Norsemen, violence, death, trickery, and betrayal. If those things tickle your fantasy-fancy, then this book is probably something you would enjoy! 6/10 stars!~

FINAL SPFBO SCORE: 6.5/10