Thunder God by Paul Watkins

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Thunder God by Paul Watkins

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: There is some great writing in Thunder God. There are some great characters too. It's interesting and accessible. Paul Watkins shows great promise. However, a terrible and rushed denouement ruins the book and sadly, it's one you should probably avoid. Keep an eye out for future books, but don't spend money on them, just in case
Buy? No Borrow? No
Pages: 336 Date: May 2005
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 0571217982

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Long ago, in the days when Christianity began to overtake Northern Europe, there lived a young boy who had been struck by lightning and so marked by the old gods as special. Because of this, his destiny was priesthood. His future was to be the one who protected and preserved not only the old ways, but also his people and his village. His task was to make that connection with the natural world, and with the old gods, and to bring that spirituality to his people that he could keep them safe. But before he could begin his training and fulfil this promise, raiders came to his village by the northern sea. They killed and they maimed, they looted and they burned, they destroyed. And when one man saw the black hammer pendant about Hakkon's neck and recognised it as a special mark, the token of his destiny, he took Hakkon with him as captive, together with Tostig, his teacher.

Tostig is murdered aboard the raiders boat, but before he dies he tells Hakkon the truth about the black stone hammer and about the secret of the source of their faith. And Hakkon promises that one day he will return to Altvik, to the secret and the source, and protect not only his village, but his faith, under threat from the bearers of the cross. Hakkon's captor, Halfdan, takes him across lands unimagined, to Miklagard and the court of the Byzantine Emperor, to join the ranks of the imperial bodyguard, the Varangian. Here, life is hard with fighting, but it is also luxurious and good during times of peace. Yet, despite the respect and position he wins, Hakkon does not forget his promise...

Gosh, you know, I was so disappointed in Thunder God. This sort of ancient history epic is not really my sort of thing any more, although I loved them as a precocious young reader. However, I am interested in the old religions and I am interested in speculation - literary or academic - on the events of ancient times and the people who lived them. There is a flood of fictional historical interpretation available on the bookshelves but so much of it is dire: poorly written; poorly researched; dull vehicles for anachronistic love stories. Thunder God promised more. Indeed, it gave more. It is not a pot-boiler. Paul Watkins is an excellent writer. He can draw believable characters, he can build tension, he can create interest and he can - best of all - wrap these things in a web of beautifully chosen words and metaphors. His is the rare style of the literary yet accessible.

I loved Thunder God for its interesting exposition of the ways and faiths of the last of the Norsemen. I loved the picture painted of the feared imperial bodyguard known as the Varangian. I felt a real connection with its characters: with Hakkon the feeling, thinking, doubting man marked by lightning; with Halfdan, the harsh but fair man lost in his own troubled mind; with Cabal, the rebellious but faithful Celt; with Kali, the gentle, self-aware woman of herbs; with Olaf, the embittered man who wants what he cannot have. Thunder God is a book of action; a huge amount happens through its heavily-plotted chapters. It drew me in and a third of the way through its three hundred pages, I was smiling. I thought I was in for a rare treat. I felt the same with just fifty pages to go.

And there lay the rub. The final fifty pages of Thunder God were a real, and shocking, let down. All of a sudden, the whole thing descended into farce. The carefully constructed plot, the fitting adventures, the characters I'd found that I cared about - these things all fell apart as crudely, the interesting plot premise behind it all was just shoved in, at the last moment and in an indecent hurry. I couldn't quite believe the denouement. This was what it was all about? This is what everything was leading up to? It just didn't fit with what had gone before.

I would rather have read a bad book, you know? I would rather have finished Thunder God expecting nothing better than what I got. Because it started so well and because the writing was so good, though, I expected much and received... a great, big anticlimax. It was such a shame. The less literary writers in this genre produce generally workmanlike books that are not really to my taste, but on occasion they manage to reach above themselves and publish something super - Bernard Cornwell and his Arthur trilogy is a good example of this. In Thunder God, I was hoping to find something similar and for two hundred and fifty pages, I thought I had. Ultimately, though, Thunder God left me with a very disappointing read. There is a definite point at which the book loses its progression and just an extra chapter or two would have fixed the problem. Without them, I am afraid, Thunder God just - if you'll forgive the dreadful pun - just loses the plot.

Thunder God promised much but delivered little. There is a writer worth reading here, but I cannot recommend this book. Ho hum.

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