Flashback Friday is something I do here at Bookwraiths every once in a while; a time when I can post my thoughts about books that I’ve read in the past but never gotten around to reviewing. With the hectic schedule of day-to-day life and trying to review new releases, there never seems enough time to give these old favorites the spotlight that they deserve. But with a day all to themselves, there is no reason I can’t revisit them, so let’s me go ahead and start reminiscing.
Genre: Alternate History
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor (April 1986)
Length: 256 pages
My Rating: 3.5 stars
King of the Wood is a quick, fast-paced alternate history story by John Maddox Roberts. To some people it will read very much like a historical fiction novel. Others may see it more as a fantasy novel with “historically” places and people used to make it more easily accessible. Some will label it a “What If” tale, where the focus is “What if the Vikings had fought the Aztecs?” or such as that. No matter how you view it, King of the Wood does one thing extremely well: It entertains.
Our point-of-view character throughout the narrative is Hring Kristjanson, son of the Thane of Long Isle. This young man having been banished from the Kingdom of Treeland and excommunicated from the Christian faith for killing his half-brother. The story which unfolds showing his epic travels across an alternate North America in 1485, as he is exposed to numerous cultures, has high adventures, becomes embroiled in epic wars, and ultimately ends his life back where his journey began so many years before.
As an alternate history buff, the thing I loved the most about this story was the world John Maddox Roberts creates. Basically, in 1485, the eastern coast of the United States has been colonized by Vikings, Saxons, and other Europeans; their union creating a new country which is split into the northern Kingdom of Treeland (Christian) and the southern Kingdom of Thorsheim (pagan). South of this coastal realm is a Muslim Kingdom in Florida and stretching from the American Plains into Central America is a powerful Aztec Empire, which is even more vibrant and bloodthirsty than the real life one. All of these places coming to life as our hero travels through them; Maddox’s quick, compact style perfect for giving readers a big picture of this world, setting the tone, then diving into the action without ever bogging down into too much detail.
But what about the characters and plot? I hear some of you asking.
Overall, King of the Wood is a straight-forward but very compelling tale, which is very much in the mold of sword and sorcery (though there really isn’t any magic here). Hring’s penchant for stumbling from one horrible yet epic situation to another very reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian’s adventures among strange cultures. And like Robert E. Howard’s best known works, Mr. Roberts shifts quickly from event to event; some character growth shown, but the focus more on the journey itself. Many memorable characters passing into and out of our heroes life. They might not be the most well-developed people, but they capture the spirit of the moment, burst to life quickly then burn brightly until the tale moves along. Which is actually very fitting, because Hring’s tale is much like an autobiography where the writer is hitting upon the major events of his life, telling a life story not moment by moment but important event to important event, and so it is only natural that many people pass into his orbit but do not remain ever circling him.
Intriguing, concise, and memorable, King of the Wood is a fine action-adventure set in a alternate North America. Perhaps John Maddox Roberts could have expanded this tale to a hefty 500 or 600 hundred pages or made it into a trilogy so that he could delve into the cultures, societies, and characters to a greater degree, but he chose to streamline the tale of Hring down into a very readable 256 pages. Nothing wrong with that, because, even without all those details, this is still a fine tale.