Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Review: Viking: The Norse Warrior's (Unofficial) Manual, by John Haywood

Slightly strangely I got this in the post two days ago despite its publication date being the 11th. Odin favours me!

Anyway, this is the fifth Unofficial Manual, and follows on from Legionary, Knight, Gladiator and Samurai. Vikings, as all men know, are amongst the coolest warriors in history and I was very much looking forward to this book.

In line with the other entries in the series the Viking Unofficial Manual is a light-hearted but nevertheless highly informative and entertaining history. There are quite a few unfamiliar words (and I can now add Mikligard to the numerous names of Byzantium), but they're always clearly explained and the map near the back is useful for finding certain places I was unaware of (Wendland, for example).

The chapters have a natural focus on warfare, as this is an essential part of being a Viking (which was not so much a race as a lifestyle). I particularly enjoyed the chapters explaining the differing types of ship (both mercantile and war), varying weapons and which countries are best to pillage.

Lots of stuff I've read recently have had something to say about Byzantium, and it was very interesting to read about how the Vikings saw the city (they formed the Varangian Guard, a well-paid bodyguard to the emperor). Similarly, the social hierarchy (beyond kings and jarls) was entirely new to me and enjoyable reading.

Also of interest, and surprising, was the fact that the Vikings lost as many battles as they won, which seems slightly counter-intuitive. However, as the author correctly points out, the balance of results favoured the Vikings (ie if they won they got a load of plunder, but if their enemies won the reverse was not true) and, being the aggressors, this probably explains why the Vikings were so feared.

The plates are probably the best in the series so far, due to a combination of re-enactors and the great pictures of dragonships.

Once again, the series has produced an enthralling and entertaining book that offers plenty of detail without ever getting bogged down in it.


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